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"The road is higher than the front door. That's bad," Zeng informs his host. "And your driveway -- too straight. Also, the front door is in the wrong place, the way it faces the back door. All your luck will run straight through the house." Then Zeng waves at the surrounding yard with his cigarette. "That utility pole is too high," he points out in Cantonese with a few wisps of English. "Bad luck. The land on the right side of the house should be higher than the left. The way it is now, you have too many accidents."
"Also," Zeng thoughtfully adds, "it makes earning money very hard."
Zeng's host, a man who calls himself Chan, simply nods. What Zeng is telling him is only too true. Ever since the 30-year-old Chan moved his family into this house nine months ago, everything has gone wrong: his brother and sister lost their jobs, his elderly parents can't stop quarreling and money seems to stream in and right out again, no matter how hard everyone struggles to save. That's why Chan called in Zeng. Though he operates out of a Houston bakery, Zeng is one of the best known Texas practitioners of an ancient Chinese art known as feng shui, or the placing of objects for good fortune. Reduced to its essence, feng shui suggests that where you live may affect how you live, that your house and your furnishings should fit in harmoniously with the universe so that you fit in harmoniously as well. If that cosmic balance should be broken by a misplaced door or wall or table ... well, who knows what might happen? For one, an expert such as Zeng, who, on this day in Austin, everyone is careful to refer to as Master Zeng.
In Houston's Chinese community, explains Dan Nip, chairman of the Houston Asian Chamber of Commerce, "everybody knows of feng shui. A lot don't practice it or believe it -- until there's a death in the family, a car wreck or your business goes bankrupt. Then you have nowhere to go. In the Western world, you go to your church. In China, you worship your god, Buddha or whatever. But the bottom line is uncertainty: why did this happen?" And when you reach that point, Nip adds, "Someone will eventually tell you, 'Go and seek advice from the feng shui master.' "
Chan, owner of the unlucky house in Austin, went through almost precisely this process. Feng shui didn't affect his life when he arrived in the United States 12 years ago, or when he took a job as a cook and began to save money. But then Chan bought a house, installed his family and suddenly saw everything he'd worked for inexplicably fall apart. So he took a friend's advice and called Zeng.
Today, striding through Chan's door with an ornate scarlet compass in his hands, Master Zeng's very presence brings an air of order, as if he's a doctor on a house call. Lanky and alert looking in a gray suit, brilliant white shirt and horn-rimmed eyeglasses, Zeng seems utterly confident he can provide answers. The first step of the diagnosis -- two routine face and hand readings -- had taken place in Houston. Now comes the part for which Master Zeng is most famed: his on-site consultation.
In abashed silence, Chan follows the master inside his bungalow, anxious to hear how he can shake the bad luck from his walls and doors.
Only a short while back, the term "feng shui" would likely have drawn a blank from even the most cosmopolitan of Houstonians. But in recent years, the practice has seeped steadily from traditional Chinese culture into the American mainstream, so that now a Borders Book Shop or a Barnes & Noble tucks feng shui guides next to books on carpentry and interior design. Even a quick scan through the Internet turns up a multitude of feng shui related resources and home pages. And, in perhaps the quintessential example of pop cultural acceptance, New York developer Donald Trump announced on the CBS Evening News last year that he was going to build his latest skyscraper project using the principals of feng shui.
Not that this nascent popularity has made every feng shui devotee happy. William Cassidy, one Internet feng shui expert, grouses that "feng shui has become corrupted to contain absurd notions of interior decoration." A recent New York magazine story, perhaps inadvertently, makes the same point. The article describes a New York publication that was plagued by constant staff turnover, causing the editor to call in a feng shui expert to sniff out the cause. The problem? A throw pillow emblazoned with the face of Patricia Hearst, which reportedly emanated bad vibrations into the whole office.
This sort of thing, though, has fairly little to do with the complex discipline that 49-year-old Zeng Geng Zeng learned as a child in China -- or with how feng shui is seriously practiced by Asians all over Houston. "I am the 19th generation of my family to have had the knowledge of feng shui passed down," Zeng, who speaks almost no English, says through his 22-year-old daughter, Michelle. The two are sitting at a table in the Zengs' tiny South Houston bakery, a fragrant, powdery place where glass cases display rows of dumplings and Chinese pastries filled with egg yolks and sweet cream.