If at times you've felt listless or tired at work, or uncomfortable sitting in a particular place without knowing why, don't despair. For, if one of the cities divination experts is to be believed, it may not be because of some unknown ailment, but because of your proximity to the negative energies.
There are powerful forces at work in this world, says Raymond Lo, a veteran practitioner of the ancient Chinese art of geomancy, known as feng shui. "They are derived from our existence in the environment and flow between human beings and everything else that occurs in nature."
In a city pursuing material wealth and fighting to make the best in today's competitive world, a mystical art that taps into an all encompassing energy is in stark contrast to its people's pragmatic stance. But such beliefs are widespread, says Lo. "Most Hong Kong people believe in feng shui to some degree... Their adherence to its principles varies just like other local customs and traditions. It is part of growing up in a Chinese culture."
Feng shui, literally meaning wind and water, dates back to the 11th century BC. It's the art of positioning objects and structures in relation to one's surroundings to ensure good fortune and harmonious existence. Its principles have their basis in early man's need to find the best place for his survival in the hostile environment of the times. Mountains or hills behind their homes shielded them from the bitter winds, and clean running water in front made cooking and bathing easy. Being in the northern hemisphere, it also made sense for the houses in the orient to face south or southeast, to catch the warmth of the sun.
In today's dense urban environment, high-rises provide the stabilizing or calming effect of the mountains, or dragon's back, while open spaces, like the rivers, are conducive to the flow of wealth and prosperity, Lo says. Modern houses too reflect these principles, with rooms positioned in the south and quieter resting spaces such as bedrooms in the north.
But is the art religion or science? Science, says Lo with an air of certainty. Sitting in his office in a building appropriately named Star House, he says: "Feng shui (charts) a real force, not unlike gravity or electrical forces. Many years ago, people didn't believe these forces existed. So others had to develop theories and then tested them to prove that they did."
Lo likens feng shui to traditional Chinese medicine and the scepticism that surrounded the existence of "meridians" in the human body - the basis for therapies such as acupuncture and acupressure. "People didn't believe such pathways existed, but it has been proven they do." The energies feng shui describes will be eventually quantified in a similar way.
Such assertions may raise the eyebrows of the sceptics, but the fact remains that many of the city's leading business names have embraced the concept. Companies such as Cathay Pacific, Sun Hung Kai Properties and Cable TV have at one time or another sought a feng shui master's services for an auspicious layout of their buildings or offices. Even banking giant HSBC changed the position of its ground floor escalators on the advice of a feng shui expert. And despite its Chinese roots, more Western than local companies have embraced its principles, Lo says.
So what draws firms like Citibank and Lehman Brothers, from countries where the art may not have been even heard of, to feng shui? Lo says: "Feng shui will benefit a company because it helps local staff feel more secure. Foreign companies have a lot of local staff and want to keep them in good spirits." Locals feel better if they know their work space has been assessed and arranged to receive the most "prosperous energies". The staff members not in a "particularly auspicious spot" because of layout constraints could still adjust their immediate environment to minimize potentially bad energies. Workers placed in an "optimum working environment" would naturally do better because of increased productivity and less internal disputes and better business decisions made by management, Lo believes.
Companies that follow feng shui principles will enjoy better business and profit, Lo says, claiming to have such feedbacks but declining to specify the firms. Citing a nearby Chinese arts and crafts and furniture store, Lo says its entrance towards an open space on the side, rather than the "normal and more desirable harbour side in the front", boded well for its business. "During the downturn, there were many bankruptcies, but that one survived. Out of all the businesses in the building, that store is now doing the best."
Consulting a feng shui expert is also a way for a foreign company to show its respect to Chinese culture and foster a closer bond with its local staff. Such actions help companies get the best out of their staff.
The way local and foreign companies handle this delicate matter offers an interesting contrast, Lo says. "In Hong Kong, foreign companies often inform their staff when feng shui would be done, whereas local ones tend to keep it a secret." This, he believes, is because "foreign companies see it as a service to their staff. They even invite them to talk to the consultant directly. But most local firms are worried that the staff would be unhappy if they find out their seats are in an inauspicious spot, and hence the secrecy."
In Hong Kong, a feng shui consultant is usually asked for his advice on an office layout rather than a whole building, says Lo, whereas on the mainland, this counsel may be needed right at the beginning of a project. "Mainland businessmen have a stronger belief in feng shui. On the mainland, consultants will be given a sketch of the whole site. They add their comments, and suggest changes that are then incorporated by the designer. After the revision, the design is shown to the consultants again for a further check."
But in any case, "it's a question of compromise," Lo says. A designer or architect wants to create beautiful and functional space, and "we want to adhere as closely as possible to feng shui. If we have a strong reason for wanting a room in a certain position then, depending on the client, he or she would agree with us."
As a rule of thumb, Lo charges US$1 per square foot for an office, and advises on every aspect of the layout. The consultation includes producing a series of detailed sketches, showing layouts of the floor and all fixed elements, right down to the furniture's colours and position. A luopan or feng shui compass is used to determine the location of what Lo says are the nine energy points that influence space. This "energy map" is used to determine the correct orientation of physical elements in a given time and space. Since the positions of these energy points change over time, minor space "adjustments" need to be carried out at regular intervals to ensure a "harmonious" balance, he says.
"What people forget is an environment's character changes over time. That's why businesses that seem to be doing well suddenly get into trouble. That's because the positions of the good luck energies shift. (Now) we are in the eighth of the nine ages of the feng shui cycle. One age lasts 20 years. Businesses that were doing well in the seventh age may suffer now. That's because they may be following out-of-date principles."
People should also use feng shui to optimize their personal living space, Lo says. "A house or an apartment is a very expensive purchase. For many it's the most expensive thing they'd buy. So they should optimize the quality of this space to the maximum."
In Lo's perfect world, everyone would and should be aware of the power of feng shui. "Of course it is important for everyone," he says matter-of-factly. "We live in the environment, so we must understand our relationship with it."