Construction often annoys the neighbours. In many parts of the world, it’s pretty routine for developers to pay compensation to those who’ve been adversely affected by building projects: those who were forced to move, say, or whose lovely views were ruined by the arrival of a new building.
In 2010, though, authorities in Hong Kong admitted to paying out millions of dollars in compensation for a very different reason. Construction projects had wrecked their neighbours’ "feng shui".
For those who don’t know: feng shui is basically a set of spatial laws that control the flow of energy, or “chi”. If everything's in the correct place, the thinking goes, you'll enjoy health and good fortune.
Sticking a skyscraper in the wrong place, though, can play absolute havoc with your chi. So in 2010, the South China Morning Post forced the Hong Kong’s government to admit that they had paid out millions of dollars worth of feng shui compensation to locals near construction projects (they wouldn’t admit exactly how much). This money was used to pay a “feng shui master” to “perform rites”. Obviously.
The most offensive project of all was a rail link between Hong Kong and the mainland Chinese city of Guangzhou, which led 17 angry residents and communities to file feng shui compensation claims. According to China Daily, these averaged at about HK$4m (about USD $500,000) per claim.
That seems pretty pricy for a cleansing ritual. At the time, in fact, The Telegraph suggested that the funding wasn’t exclusively put towards cleansings:
Since feng shui is a subjective art, critics have said the "cleansing rituals" amount to a shakedown, with feng shui masters and local landlords colluding to launch outrageous claims before splitting the proceeds.
Construction workers destroying feng shui at the site of the Hong Kong- Guangzhou rail link, 2011. Image: Alancrh at Wikimedia Commons.
After the Post’s investigation, Hong Kong’s parliament committed to enforcing greater “operational transparency" on payments, though it’s not particularly clear what this would entail. Feng shui is still a huge industry in the city-state: there are around 10,000 practitioners, it’s still part of the construction industry’s due diligence regulations, and everything from bridges to telephone lines have been cleansed after they were judged to have poor feng shui.
Many practitioners moved to the island in the 60s after the practice was outlawed in mainland China (the ban has since been lifted). On Hong Kong's tourist website, there is an entire section devoted to the practice, including this heartwarming tale:
The two famous bronze lions sitting in front of the HSBC Main Building are not just there for decoration. When the building was completed in the 1980s, they were reinstalled in their current positions only after lengthy consultations with feng shui experts. Considering that HSBC hasn’t exactly done badly as a business, some locals like to stroke the lions’ paws and noses in the hope that some of their good feng shui fortune will rub off on them.
By the sounds of it, good fortune comes not from observing the laws, but encouraging a public body to flagrantly break them somewhere near your house.