The ancient Chinese practice of arranging space to achieve harmony with the environment, called Feng Shui, is gaining international popularity. But some say the practice is too often mixed with superstition. Architects, engineers and Feng Shui researchers from around the globe have met in Hong Kong in an attempt to make the system less mystical and more scientific.
Before Hong Kong Disneyland opened in 2005, company executives decided to shift the angle of the theme park's front gate by 12 degrees. They acted on the advice of a Feng Shui master, who said the change would ensure a better flow of energy and maximum prosperity for the amusement park. Disney made these and other modifications to reflect local culture, as many Chinese take Feng Shui very seriously.
Feng Shui, which means "wind and water", is the ancient Chinese practice of placing objects and arranging space in order to achieve harmony with the environment. A location considered to have "good Feng Shui" is a place that maximizes the flow of energy to achieve harmony between people, structures and nature.
Albert So, a professor at the department of building and construction at Hong Kong's City University, says most Feng Shui masters adhere to the so-called "form school" that mainly relates to architecture and interior design.
"That means that you look at the form of the landscape - you look at the mountains, at the rivers, the sea, the hilly land; these are the forms in the nature. When you look at that, you can understand how you can build your buildings at appropriate locations so that disturbance to the harmony of the universe or to the nature can be reduced," he explained.
He says many famous buildings in Hong Kong, such as the headquarters of the international bank, HSBC, were built according to Feng Shui principles. The HSBC building is considered to have "good Feng Shui" because it has an open area in front of it, with no other buildings blocking its view of the harbor.
So also says that while many would not admit it, nearly everyone in Hong Kong believes to some degree in the ancient practice. He says many people consult Feng Shui masters before buying property or moving to a new apartment but that some of the advisers mix ancient knowledge with superstition to make money.
"For example in different corners of your apartment if it is a bad corner with bad Feng Shui they ask you to put a piece of crystal there, some coins, or they ask you to put a fishing tank - something like that. Actually, there is no evidence to show that by putting a very small piece of crystal at the corner of a building that can affect the Feng Shui of that corner," said Albert So.
Another problem, So says, is that information on Feng Shui is incomplete. Ancient writings on the complex practice, some dating back 3,000 years, contain many rules but few explanations and can be interpreted in many different ways.
But efforts are underway to make the practice less mystical.
For the second time, Hong Kong's City University, together with the Asian Institute of Intelligent Buildings, has hosted a conference on "Scientific Feng Shui". Architects, environmental scientists and engineers from around the world met in Hong Kong in October to share their knowledge of the practice.
Participant Michael Mak, lecturer in architecture at the University of Newcastle in Australia, says the conference aimed to promote both the scientific verification of Feng Shui principles and academic research on the system.
"There is a lot of popularity in the world but there is not too much research work happening. So in the world, there is around less than ten PhD research works on this topic. We try to promote it more from the academic point of view," said Mak.
The participants' goal is to make Feng Shui an academic subject at universities around the world within the next few years.
One of the main topics of the conference was the application of Feng Shui principles in architecture.
Howard Choy, an architect in Australia, says an ideal house should, for example, be built on slightly elevated ground and that its back should be protected by trees, another building or high ground. He also says that a front door needs to be visible, welcoming and friendly in order to let energy into the building.
Choy says demand for Feng Shui-influenced building design in Australia is already very healthy. He says while initially most of his clients were of Asian descent, his customers now come from all ethnic groups. Choy says Feng Shui has been considered a New Age fad for the last two decades, but people have become interested in its practical benefits in the past few years.
"People turn more to what's the social and economic benefit rather than more the New Age approach to Feng Shui," noted Howard Choy. "When you actually look at Feng Shui it has an economic basis, because what we said was that you study the resources of what you got and you try to make the best use of it and you likely touch the land, right, so you use the quality and the advantage of the land to the maximum, without spending money trying to change the land, change the energy."
Choy holds Feng Shui classes for architects, city planners and interior designers - both in Australia and in Europe, where interest is also growing.
He also takes study tours to China, the birthplace of Feng Shui. For decades, the communist party banned its practice there, branding it a superstition. In the last few years, Feng Shui masters have been allowed to practice again. But City University's Albert So says Chinese authorities still view the open promotion of Feng Shui with suspicion.