Hong Kong has spent millions compensating locals for bad feng shui

The lions outside Hong Kong’s central HSBC branch were carefully arranged to maximise feng shui (and, we imagine, avoid compensation claims). Image: LeonGo at Wikimedia Commons.

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.


Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.

There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).