A Sense of Placement

From the moment he steps out onto the steep driveway near the small house in Austin, Zeng Geng Zeng knows something is very wrong.

"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.

While the bakery now provides Zeng's main form of income, his professional identity dates back much further: to the day when his grandfather, an accomplished feng shui master, first asked him to memorize the ground rules of feng shui. Practicing feng shui -- scrutinizing geological formations, birth dates, the Chinese constellations and, most important of all, topography and architecture -- has been the Zeng family's business for centuries, passed down verbally over generations. Though feng shui isn't a religious discipline, it is based on certain spiritual principles, among them that it takes a certain gift to manage the unseen world, and that there is a correspondence between heavenly, natural and human bodies. The words "feng shui" themselves -- which translate into "wind and water" and are pronounced "fung schway" or "fung schooey" -- suggest the discipline's central premise: that environment directly affects psychology, destiny, even the world of spirits. The notion is that qi (pronounced "chee"), the energy of life, flows through everything, and that by properly arranging your surroundings you can keep the qi running smoothly. Improperly arranged surroundings might trap the qi, or drain it away, or scatter it, all of which could result in problems.

"[Feng shui is] a reflection of the Chinese belief in the interrelatedness of all things," says Rice University history professor Richard Smith, author of Fortune Tellers and Philosophers: Divination and Traditional Chinese Society, which outlines the tenets of feng shui. "The fundamental premise is that by taking into account certain astrological and topographical variables, the feng shui master can find the most auspicious location for residences, for both the living and the dead."

For Zeng, who moved with his family to the United States 15 years ago, the skills he learned had both the cozy lure of tradition and the covertness of political subversion. China's Communist authorities years ago forbade the practice of feng shui and other such "superstitions." But Zeng's family, in a remote village in the Canton province, practiced it anyway. For young Zeng, the study of feng shui was at first a game.

"It's very difficult to learn," says Zeng, exuding an air of 1950s sophistication as he gestures with yet another cigarette. The quantity and diversity of the items that could affect feng shui was daunting, so Zeng's grandfather taught him to memorize feng shui principles by rote, threading each day's lessons into a melody. Every time Zeng successfully added to the song, his grandfather would reward the boy with candy.

"That's how I learned," Zeng says. "If all that I'd had to memorize were printed out on paper, it would reach" -- he extends his hand gracefully to measure two feet above the table -- "all the way up to here."

Mathematical equations and formulas were just part of it. Zeng also watched as villagers discreetly called on his grandfather to have their faces and hands read. They presented their birth dates and times of birth, which Zeng's grandfather added into the calculus of their destinies, all the while teaching the boy what he was doing.

"To tell a fortune, you calculate the year, the month and the time of birth," Zeng explains. Each item corresponds -- as do the directions north, south, east and west -- to a different natural element: fire, gold, water and wood. Each also brings a distinctive kind of luck. And woe to the expensive undertaking that a feng shui master has not tested. By way of example, Zeng describes a rocket that he says the Chinese government tried to test in mid-February. "It didn't work," Zeng says, a bit smugly.

The Chinese scientists, it seems, either forgot or just ignored the implications of their launch date. But any good feng shui master, says Zeng, could have told them that this year, 1996, is associated with water. The day of the week was water and fire. And the hour of the blastoff was water. "The day they launched it wasn't the right one," Zeng says. "Obviously, fire and water don't go together."

To the casual driver passing rows of stolid houses in Bellaire, the stuffy red colonial near the freeway certainly doesn't stand out. Its heft, its glinting windows and brasswork, its unsociable but weighty front door all convey, as do its neighbors, affluent stability.

What no one from the outside might guess is that it also bears special armor: the security that comes only from having first-rate feng shui.

Master Zeng knows the house well, just as he knows that Houston is dotted with such structures, all of whose owners paid good money for their luck. It was Zeng, after all, who picked this site for the house's owners seven years ago.

When the couple first came to consult with him, they were dogged by terrible luck. Health problems plagued them; money was tight. Both they and Zeng believed that the culprit was bad feng shui in the house they then occupied, and they resolved that their next house wouldn't have the same problem. So Zeng agreed to help. The only hitch was, it wasn't only location that Zeng had to take into account. The couple's birthdays, Zeng says, fell on dates particularly hard to match with houses they found around Houston.

There were also landscaping issues to consider. Developed among the hilly terrain of southern China, feng shui includes not only directions, such as whether a house faces north or south, but also topography. The earth is believed to have electrical flows and pulse points just like a human body, with the strongest, and most positive, concentrations of earth energy pooling in hilly areas and near water. A good house needs high ground, such as a hill, behind it to lend security, something that's not always easy to find in a flat city such as Houston.

(As it happens, the lack of hills and recesses to gather the earth's vital forces means that Houston, as a municipality, has bad feng shui. Houston's flatness, in fact, may help explain why the hill country city of Austin got to be the capital, Zeng says. And Houston's freeways, with their inauspicious way of passing before downtown buildings, only make matters worse. That's why so many people have left Houston in the past decade, Zeng explains. Even so, within every space, even those with bad feng shui, there's good feng shui to be found. Memorial Park, for example, is a Shangri-la of friendly feng shui.)

But if Zeng's clients knew Houston offered tough odds, they also believed that Zeng could beat them. "We looked at many, many areas," Zeng says. "Finally, I found this place in Bellaire. The ground, and the location, was good, but the old house was no good. I suggested that they tear it down and rebuild it."

They did. A senseless extravagance? Zeng doesn't think so.
"They tore the old house to the ground and built a two story house right on top of it," Zeng says. "This happened seven years ago. Now, the wife is staying home as a housewife -- all she does is just drive the kids to school, cook and clean. For them, that's prosperity. She doesn't need to work anymore."

That the couple he helped to find fortune ended up in Bellaire may not be coincidence, Zeng says. According to local legend, a decade ago a feng shui adept noticed that the area had good feng shui, and as a result, many affluent Asian families made a point of buying homes there. While the story is hard to substantiate, it's true that many well-educated Asians in Houston factor feng shui into their important real estate deals. Many of feng shui's concepts are grounded in ideas of harmony found in Chinese classics such as the I Ching. Not only that, but the principles of feng shui correspond closely with Asian aesthetics: it's easy to see how a structure with really bad feng shui could make its occupants uneasy without their quite knowing why.

Although the Chinese yellow pages advertise only some five Houston feng shui professionals, there are many more than that out there plying their services, says Paul Lin, a real estate salesman with Newmark Home Corporation. A native of Taiwan, Lin grew up with the feng shui basics. But in recent years, he's had to immerse himself deeply in the discipline to keep up with the demands of his clients, about half of whom are Asian, and the feng shui consultants they often bring along when house hunting.

"It's like having an inspector. You pay three or four hundred dollars, and they come with you," Lin says. His job, as he sees it, is to know enough about feng shui to counter or rechannel his clients' concerns. He ticks off the elements he keeps track of with the expertise of a Realtor reciting small print on a contract.

"Okay: your front door should not face the road," Lin says, "because it means your fortune goes away. Your stairway, especially if it's curved, should never face the front door. In the kitchen, your sink and your cooktop should not be face to face. Say you have a central island cooktop; you can't have it face the sink. The cooktop is fire, so what happens when the water hits the fire? That's what we mean when we talk about the harmony of living."

There's more. "Generally speaking, our clients prefer rooms shaped like a square box, which has harmony," Lin says. "When you see a square, it gives you a comfortable feeling. Angles mean something's not in harmony." The fireplace, Lin notes, should not face the front door, because this could mean the man of the house will have a fiery temper. While that notion may cause a skeptic to raise an eyebrow, even doubters are likely to admit that some feng shui rules have a certain logic. Feng shui, for example, suggests that the best direction for a house to face is south, so that the house avoids evil forces that radiate from the north. But this also protects the house from direct sunlight. Running water is also considered auspicious, since it suggests the swift and vigorous flow of luck and money -- not to mention that its sound can be soothing.

Not all the rules, though, make an easy trip across cultures. "House numbers, for example," Lin explains patiently. "Some clients try to avoid the number four, because four signifies death in Chinese." Some clients also add up the digits on a house number, then seek out the meaning in Chinese numerology.

Lin's employer, Taiwan-based Newmark company, built good feng shui into most of the 3,000 homes it's sold since 1983. One of the 50 biggest developers in the United States, Newmark offers ready built houses and a selection of blueprints to choose from; thanks to a feng shui consultant in Taiwan, Lin says, almost all of Newmark's offerings meet feng shui standards.

Newmark's clients, it's clear, appreciate this. In response, says Lin, the company's American-grown competition is taking notice. And now non-Asian homeowners are craning their necks to figure out what their Asian neighbors know. Channel 11 anchor Sylvan Rodriguez, for one, is a convert.

His enthusiasm was born, quite pragmatically, around the time he sold his home in Sugar Lake. The house was nice enough, Rodriguez says. It had a tiny lake that you could see from indoors, a swimming pool and an off-center staircase. But, says Rodriguez, he never dreamed that a few days after he advertised his home in the paper, four buyers would be vying for the place. The couple who got it offered cash.

All the people who wanted the house were Chinese. Later, Rodriguez says, it hit him that the secret of the house's appeal was its feng shui. Running water in the back, a staircase that wouldn't let good spirits tumble out -- it all added up to great feng shui.

"It was a very lucky house for me, too," says Rodriguez. "It was quite a deal. They paid cash, they wanted it quickly, no inspection. And since it was sold through my brother-in-law, who is not a Realtor, we eliminated the salespeople."

Now Rodriguez is building a new home. And he's leaving no loose ends, both for the present and for a future resale.

"I guarantee you," Rodriguez says, "we'll be on the water and the staircase won't be facing the front door. I just think it's a wise investment."

Inside the Austin bungalow, Master Zeng is finding trouble everywhere.mmmm Checking his elaborate red compass -- a traditional instrument for taking feng shui readings -- he wanders the house observing doors, decorations and fixtures. The compass, encased in a footlong square of metal, is covered with a filigree of gold characters; though the markings are arcane to a layperson, you can tell what they indicate by the look on Zeng's face. There's one scrap of good news, he says: the furnishings, often prime feng shui offenders, in this house cause no harm. But that's mainly because Chan has very few furnishings. What little sitting space there is is occupied right now by his friends and relatives. Two young women entertaining babies and three young men lined up next to each other on a small bench against a wall observe carefully. Chan's elderly father stands alone, hands by his sides, waiting for Master Zeng's verdict.

Unfortunately, as far as Zeng is concerned, Chan's little house is riddled with bad portents. The first problem is that the front and back door are both perfectly aligned -- and so are badly out of place. No wonder Chan's family can't hold onto money; their earnings stream in the front door and make a beeline out the back. The front door, Zeng says, will have to be replaced. Maybe Chan can build a little foyer and point the new front door toward a different side.

"Let's see the bedroom," Zeng proposes. No good again. Chan's bed, one of only two furnishings in the austere room, faces the bureau mirror, and no soul can get a good night's sleep in that position, says Zeng.

"When a human being is sleeping, you're not supposed to be flashing on a mirror. It's not comfortable for the body," he explains.

Zeng moves the entourage on toward the kitchen. It's even worse. The stove, which should face east, the sign of wood, instead faces west. "The west side is gold; the east side is wood," Zeng explains. "South is fire, north is water. Water against gold" -- in other words, the sink that stands next to the stove -- "is no good."

Helplessly, Chan rearranges a tea towel hanging from the sink.
"This room," adds Zeng, not unkindly, "is not supposed to be the kitchen."
"Could I just switch the stove and the refrigerator?" Chan wonders.

"No, it won't work. The only thing to do is move the kitchen altogether," Zeng tells him matter-of-factly. "The kitchen would work very well in that bedroom, though."

Chan, who bought the house for $72,000 and is broke, is in no position to transplant his kitchen, so he keeps silent. Then Zeng ushers the group into the living room, from which he can see both the street and the back yard.

It looks bad. The sharp upward incline of the driveway toward the road compounds Chan's problem many times.

It's a little difficult to watch as nearly every feature of Chan's tidy cottage is scrutinized, contemplated and then damned. Chan knew, of course, that his luck was bad. But, he confides, he didn't know it was this bad.

Master Zeng may sympathize, but sympathy is not what he's here for. An assessment of the house's feng shui is his concern. He's clear-spoken and professional, standing straight and a little apart from his listeners like a dancer, using his whole body to make his point. There's something reassuring about how Zeng speaks, even while his news is relentlessly dismal. If nothing else, Chan's problem can now be pinned down, and if not fully solved, at least faced.

Zeng steps back from a poster of a Chinese god on horseback in the dining room. Even this, it turns out, is adding to poor Chan's misfortune. On the mantelpiece below the image stands a small statue of Buddha. Unfortunately, says Zeng, the Buddha's rank exceeds that of the horseman god. One of the two images must go. Then Zeng makes his way to the porch for a smoke and a final assessment.

As birds converse in the budding tree beside the deck, Zeng lights his cigarette.

"Anybody who lives in this house will have a problem," he tells Chan. "Basically, it's not really fit for human habitation." For a few minutes more he goes over his findings with Chan in Cantonese. But there's really not much more to say, and Chan finally thanks him and leads him out. In Chan's front room, a handful of friends are waiting for Master Zeng to read their fortunes.

Back out on the sunny deck, Chan, still a little stunned, mulls over his options. Despite the litany of bad news, he doesn't regret asking Zeng to visit. After all, he says, Master Zeng doesn't create the luck, he merely spells it out. And a good feng shui master can at least tell you how to fix things.

"If I can afford it, I'll make the alterations," Chan says finally. "If not, I'll keep living with it. And if my luck continues badly, I'll try to sell the house."

Then he asks me not to print his address or his last name. After all, for someone else -- some buyer who maybe hasn't heard of feng shui, or doesn't believe it -- what they don't know about Chan's house won't hurt them.


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