From the Star Ferry at night, nowhere else on Earth looks as futuristic as Hong Kong. The skyscrapers of Central and Tsim Sha Tsui are images of Blade Runner made real – the dazzling towers and incandescent brand names as close to Ridley Scott’s vision of a cyberpunk future as we’ll hopefully ever get.
Hong Kong sells this vision of itself to outsiders. Victoria Harbour at dusk is the banner image on the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s website. Visitors oooo and aaah at the city’s skyscrapers, marvel at the array of uses one’s Octopus card can be put to and consider the world of tomorrow here today when riding the Mid-Levels Escalator, a mode of transport that wouldn’t look out of place in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
But despite this futuristic façade, Hong Kong remains wedded to old ideas and superstitions. Like its much hyped East/West identity, the city’s futuristic appearance and simultaneous adherence to tradition is one of its appealing dualities. It remains a central irony that Hong Kong, a British colony for nearly 150 years, remains a greater repository of ancient Chinese culture than the Mainland itself.
Nowhere is Hong Kong’s respect for tradition more evident than in its residents’ courting of luck via feng shui. Evidence of such adhesion to these beliefs isn’t hard to find. Hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers visit temples during Spring Festival to curry favour with the gods: on Lunar New Year’s Eve Wong Tai Sin Temple stays open all night and hosts some 50,000 visitors. The Jockey Club uses names like Lucky Start and Flourishing Fortune to tempt Hongkongers into having a flutter at this time of year and 79,000 duly attended Sha Tin Racecourse on January 1. The government spends millions compensating communities in the New Territories who claim their feng shui is disturbed by construction projects and the HSBC Building, a hi-tech wonder built according to feng shui principles, was the most expensive building in the world when completed in 1985. Adverts for almanacs written by famous fortunetellers fill billboards and bedeck the sides of buses here, putting these individuals in the company of popstars and famous actors.
But why? Why Hong Kong more than anywhere else in the world? And how much will Hongkongers spend to try and maximise elusive luck? Read on to find out…
Location, Location, Location
Yes, Hong Kong’s wealth could be put down to the rigorous work ethic of its citizens and its history of acting as a gateway to the Mainland, but feng shui masters would say the city’s physical geography plays a crucial part too.
That’s because Hong Kong, according to the principles of feng shui and geomancy, exists in an almost perfect location. Ideally, houses and cities are supposed to be ‘bound by mountains and near water’. Mountains act as a defence against inclement weather and invaders, while water is a source of life and a useful means of transportation. Surrounded by the South China Sea and covered in mountains, our SAR is blessed.
The importance of feng shui in our territory has long been recognised. Tai Fu Tai Mansion in San Tin, believed to have been constructed in 1865 by a Qing dynasty official, before the New Territories became part of Hong Kong in 1898, is ideally situated in front of four hills and two water channels. Similarly, Sheung Wo Hang in the northeastern New Territories, founded around 1750, is noteworthy for having been designed with great care for taking into account various feng shui environmental elements.
Clearly, feng shui has been accorded influence in Hong Kong for centuries and existed courtesy of influence from the Mainland. Beijing’s Forbidden Palace was constructed in the 15th century according to many feng shui principles in order to bolster its fortunes, including the practice of having a mountain to the rear and a river in front. The geographical aspects that made this possible, the Jinshui River and Wansui Mountain, were both articially created solely for this purpose.
These days, however, feng shui is looked on with disapproval by Beijing. In January 2015 officials in Shanxi province launched a campaign against superstitious activities like feng shui. Xinhua reported that anyone involved in such activities would be ‘punished in line with the newly published guidelines by the Shanxi provincial Civilization Office’ and that officials were organising a ‘a variety of pro-science events’ for ‘Shanxi’s rural areas to popularise scientific knowledge and improve local residents’ ability to reason against superstition’.
Although China’s crackdown on feng shui is commonly associated with Communist rule since 1948, authorities in China had for decades been attempting to eliminate such beliefs among the populace.
General Yuan Shikai, later the Hongxian Emperor, led the first such crackdown in an attempt to modernise Qing China following its defeat in a succession of wars after the First Opium War. After Yuan’s death, the Kuomintang continued to work at eliminating superstition in China. The party was keen to define habits suitable for a modern citizen and to eradicate any customs that might hinder the formation of a cohesive nation. Although it did not specifically target rituals associated with feng shui, such practices were frowned upon.
Following the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, a new Marxist-led crackdown on superstition commenced. This process took off during the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1958, which looked to prepare the population for rapid modernisation. Communist Party leaders declared in memorandum that superstition had ‘lost its basis for existence in the socialist society’ and should be abolished. Superstitions such as feng shui suffered even greater censor during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when it was considered one of the ‘four olds’ – old beliefs, customs, traditions and thoughts – that had to be ditched to push the development of true communism. Attacked with opprobrium, the visible practice of religion and superstition practically vanished during this era.
If concrete proof is required that luck and feng shui is big business in Hong Kong, just head to 1 Queen’s Road Central. The HBSC Building is a physical manifestation of Hong Kong’s belief that praying for luck is all well and good, but paying for it is better. When it was finished in November 1985 the headquarters was the most expensive building in the world, having cost $5.2 billion. Although part of the cost can be explained by the building’s hi-tech look and complicated design, which allowed for an absence of internal supporting structures, the desire to ensure maximum prosperity led to a host of design choices focused on ensuring correct feng shui.
The site itself has excellent natural feng shui. As well as enjoying the benefits of Central’s geography – with mountains to the rear and water to the front – the HSBC Building supposedly sits on a living dragon’s vein, which brings tremendous energy and prosperity. The bank is apparently the only building in the SAR to enjoy such fortune.
Foster Associates, the architects of the building, built it, literally and figuratively, on this base of prosperity. Sir Norman Foster himself commented that the success of the construct was down to ‘its context and the technology’ involved.
Said context was the local belief in correct feng shui bringing good luck. To that end, a raft of luck-inspired decisions were made. The entrances to the bank were placed along a northwest-southeast axis, as these were deemed most desirable. A feng shui expert was employed to determine the most precise position of the banks’ famous lions, Stephen and Stitt, in order to harmonise with the contour of the hill behind. The ground-floor space, filled with domestic helpers come Sundays, was not left vacant for altruistic reasons. HSBC asked that the area be left vacant so as not to obstruct the positive flow of energy across the site. The escalators that take visitors into and out of the building were also aligned to avoid the problem of having entrances and exits facing opposite each other, which could mean the beneficial energy of the dragon’s vein leaving as easily as it enters. The X-shaped bracing of the structural system was also deemed to have a negative effect on the flow of energy within the building. Although this aspect of the design could not be altered, green plants were strategically placed to counteract any adverse effects.
All this serves to make me more aware of my surroundings…Stay Lucky.
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