Luck Be a Stone Lion

  • Share
  • Read Later
Whenever Mitch Lansdell, manager of the Los Angeles suburb of Gardena, has an important phone call, he swivels his chair to face the northeastern corner of his office. He has permanently sealed one of his office doors and put all his books in the southeastern corner. It's not tidiness. It's the instructions of "intercultural consultant" Angi Ma Wong, a practitioner of feng shui, the Chinese tradition that says success is largely a matter of orienting your surroundings.

Think it's bizarre that a person responsible for the civic welfare of 59,000 residents should so slavishly follow an ancient foreign tradition? Lansdell, 51, says he dares not do otherwise. The city faced a $4.7 million budget deficit back in 1998 when Lansdell, then acting manager, agreed in desperation to try a feng shui (pronounced fung shway) practitioner. It could be coincidence, but within three weeks of her visit, Lansdell was promoted to full-time manager of Gardena, whose economy then got a boost when Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt bought a bankrupt casino there. This month Lansdell expects Gardena's deficit to decrease to $2.9 million.

Feng shui has not only arrived; it has burrowed deep into American society. A decade ago, its followers were mostly Asian Americans, New Age junkies and flaky Hollywood or fashion types. Now bureaucrats and bottom-line-driven businessmen are embracing it. Ma Wong's clients include 65 real estate developers as well as Universal Studios and Coty Beauty, the fragrance concern. Real estate tycoon Donald Trump uses feng shui, as does the brokerage house Merrill Lynch.

In New York City, the most popular items at the gift shop of the Whitney Museum of American Art during this year's biennial exhibit were stone lions, at $500 to $1,000 a pop, made by New York-based Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. Prospective purchasers had to submit applications explaining their feng shui problems. After considering each request, Cai decided who needed a lion most and then personally installed it. Many buyers were art collectors, but others included Deutsche Bank and the managing director of a venture-capital firm, whose lion is meant to compensate for his office's proximity to a church.

Feng shui, for those who have somehow missed its myriad references in pop culture, means wind and water in Chinese. The 3,500-year-old system, once used only by China's Emperor, is based on the idea that landscapes, buildings and even whole cities have hidden zones of energy (qi), which can be manipulated by the shape, size and color of a structure as well as its entrances. A building that allows qi to flow freely is said to have good feng shui, which brings prosperity and success.

Hollywood, of course, is feng shui ground zero. Rob Lowe, whose career has seen plenty of mishaps, hired a feng shui consultant to renovate his on-set trailer for the TV show The West Wing. To attract positive qi, he installed a water fountain, rearranged the furniture and moved a mirror. The West Wing (audience: 12.9 million) is a critical and ratings success. To many in Hollywood, that's pretty much QED.

Not surprisingly, feng shui has become a marketing tool. Adherents can buy feng shui crystals, candles and wind chimes. There's even a feng shui toilet, a commode with a success-enhancing fish tank. Then there's the warning on the door of a small establishment in Santa Monica: THE USE OF CELLULAR TELEPHONES INSIDE THE TEAHOUSE IS DAMAGING TO OUR FENG SHUI. It's not a joke. In the high end of Los Angeles property sales, a working knowledge of feng shui is essential, says Jeanne Valvo, a director at the Fred Sands real estate firm. "It's like computers." Many clients bring their feng shui consultants on house viewings.

Los Angeles architect Clive Wilkinson says feng shui offers "a very interesting perspective on human occupational space. If put to the test, a lot of architecture is based on feng shui." Orville Schell, the noted sinologist based in Berkeley, Calif., attributes the current fascination with feng shui to "a nostalgia for the spiritual, even occult side of things." Westerners, he says, have long had the "urge to give part of ourselves to a way of living in which belief rather than rationalism reigns." And any belief system that gets people to tidy their offices can't be all bad.