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Beyond Feng Shui

Joe Queenan

Volume 12.4, December 2002

Recent visitors to Los Angeles have been puzzled by the appearance of gleaming stainless-steel globes on street corners in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. They are also baffled by the sight of Mercedeses and BMWs with tiny fish tanks attached to the rear windows, and by the colorful banners that seem to furl forth from every third car antenna in the late-afternoon breeze. But most of all, they are bewildered by the new highway signs reading:

Tune in to 530 AM for thelatest ch'i updates.

Residents of Los Angeles take all this for granted. They know that the globes and banners and fish tanks and highway signs are part and parcel of the latest lifestyle craze to hit Southern California: feng che.

Feng che (the words literally mean “wind” and “vehicle”) is a variation on feng shui, the ancient Chinese philosophy that seeks to put human beings in harmonious balance with their surroundings. Several years ago, feng shui took Los Angeles by storm. From Pasadena to Santa Monica, a groundswell of Angelenos suddenly began rearranging their furniture and positioning mirrors and wind chimes in strategic locales to maximize the flow of positive ch'i (natural energy) into their personal space. Businesses, too, took on the ch'i challenge. Feng shui consultants, some earning as much as $750 an hour, were recruited from Hong Kong and Taiwan to redesign entire buildings and, where necessary, install structures that could ward off negative energy surreptitiously infiltrating a room or edifice.

Nowhere did feng shui gain a more dramatic foothold than in the entertainment industry. Showbiz proponents of feng shui enthusiastically proselytized for this mysterious innovation from the inscrutable East, declaring that the reconfiguration of their work and living spaces was leading directly to a more productive psychic environment and resulting in better deals, better scripts, better performances, better movies, and in some cases, better marriages. By positioning a small fountain or an aquarium in the southeast corner of one’s living room, it was said, one could generate sufficient positive energy to significantly enhance one’s percentage of the gross in a low-budget action film with only one or two big names attached to the project. Conversely, by placing a small statue of the Three-Legged Toad God of Wealth near the medicine cabinet and making sure that the toilet seat was always down, it was possible to prevent positive ch'i from being flushed into the sewage system. By all indications, the advent of feng shui was making movie industry people smarter, more efficient and happier.

Then came Meet Joe Black. Some of the key figures involved in the making and distribution of this Brad Pitt bomb were inhabiting pristine feng by shui-ed offices and domiciles and had been energetically seeking to lead lives according to venerable principles established more than 4,000 years ago in the wilds of rural China. And yet the movie was a complete disaster. What went wrong? Who was to blame? Were feng shui consultants now unmasked as the proverbial emperors having no clothes?

In retrospect, it is apparent that the lifestyle-enhancing powers of feng shui were seriously oversold from the very beginning. By removing sharp angles from buildings, by positioning radiant mirrors and glistening pools of water in such a way that they would deflect negative energy, and by introducing bold, topographically adventurous elements into contemporary garden design, feng shui practitioners had been able to transform defective work and living spaces into spiritually cohesive sanctuaries in which it was possible for entertainment industry luminaries to work to the best of their abilities. But as anyone who has ever visited Los Angeles is well aware, an enormous amount of deal-making is transacted on car phones while executives and stars are navigating some of the worst traffic in North America. Until recently, most of those people were riding in vehicles that had the wrong colors, the wrong interiors, the wrong positioning of mirrors and, most calamitously, the wrong accessories. Worse than that, industry movers and shakers were driving to work without paying the slightest attention to the direction from which positive or negative ch'i was flowing into their Mercedeses, BMWs or Range Rovers during their lengthy commutes.

The time for feng che had arrived.

“Feng che is a somewhat more recent, but nonetheless ancient Chinese philosophy that dates from the third century b.c., when the Great Wall of China was being built,” explains Li Sang Yin, the most sought-after feng che practitioner working in the United States today. “After they'd finished building the first 1,200 miles of a wall meant to keep barbarian invaders out, work slowed to a crawl because laborers were turning up for work each morning in a terrible mood. The Emperor ordered feng shui experts called in. These ch'i specialists immediately investigated the number of sharp turns workmen made on their way to the construction site and discovered that, indeed, protracted exposure to sharp corners had exerted a catastrophic effect on the personal productivity of the labor force. As all enlightened ch'i watchers know, negative ch'i seeps through the holes in the universe via the microscopic intersection where two sharp edges do not exactly meet. That’s how feng che-the science of making sure that the traveler is in complete harmony with the physical space he is moving through-came into being.”

But how does a discipline rooted in ancient sino-architectural managerial techniques work in a modern, free-market environment like the entertainment business? Basically, the process runs something like this: an individual-a film producer, say-first hires a feng che master to visit his house and office. Using a diagnostic device called the denkon guagua an octagonal template on which are printed symbols for each of the eight areas that define human existence (money, sex, fame, power, contacts, fitness, enemies and revenge)-the master ascertains the quantity and quality of negative ch'i in the living or work space. The master then superimposes the denkon guagua over a scaled diagram of the client’s automobile and decides which objects-banners, globes, fish, flowers, draperies, mirrors, statues of the Three-Legged Toad God of Wealth, etc.-need to be inserted in each section of the car to maximize the proximate ch'i, and which objects need to be removed.

No small amount of intuitive brilliance is called upon from the feng che master in this process. For example, a producer with a great deal of money but very few friends would be instructed to position delicate flowers over the steering wheel, while a famous producer with numerous enemies would be counseled to reposition his rearview mirrors so that anyone looking into them would catch his own direct reflection and be pummeled into a stupor by his own reverberatingly negative ch'i. Obviously, there’s a risk in the daring concept of feng che. “Positioning your rearview mirror so that the negative energy flowing from a rival’s reflection boomerangs back into his vehicle is one of the linchpins of modern feng che,” says Lt. Teddy Carmody of the LAPD. “But it also makes it almost impossible to make that eastbound ramp exit onto Santa Monica Boulevard from the middle lane, because you can’t see the dead spot right behind you. Especially if you've got a statue of the Three-Legged Toad God of Wealth in the back window. This is the downside of the feng che boom.”

The other crucial component of feng che is devising a route from one’s home to one’s office that will maximize the flow of positive energy into one’s vehicle and, ultimately, one’s life and deals. Above all, this means minimizing the number of four-way intersections you encounter. So much negative ch'i can leach into the street through the competing quartet of right angles at intersections that after a certain number of them, drivers sometimes become too depressed to go to work, or even leave the intersection.

“From centuries before the Mongol invasions, it was always understood that fastidiously adhering to feng che principles was inevitably going to mean longer commutes,” says Li Sang Yin, who charges $500 an hour to feng che sports cars ($750 for SUVs). “So anyone wishing to gain the benefits of integrating feng che into his lifestyle must be prepared to take circuitous routes to work.”

The desire to drive to and from the office via winding roads with a minimum of sharp angles has contributed to the massive traffic jams reported on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, Mulholland Drive and the Bel Air portion of Sunset Boulevard in the past year. Feng che aficionados have taken to navigating around entire escarpments of Los Angeles real estate in an effort to reach the office with as little involvement in hard-edge geometry as possible. Seeking to cope with this unprecedented flow of traffic through serpentine byways, Los Angeles and the various independent civic entities that are adjacent to it (e.g., Beverly Hills) have passed resolutions designating certain roads as off-limits to feng che motorists. In Culver City, feng che driving is permitted only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and not before nine a.m. or after six p.m. “In a place like L.A., where nobody believes in carpooling or public transportation, feng che is a double-edged sword,” says Barry Alvaro, author of Diffident Azures: Feng Che in the Age of the Han Dynasty and Feng Che for Bozos.

“Feng che is about personal commuting, not group transportation,” adds Li Sang Yin. “Sharing the commuting space with another human being inevitably reduces the amount of positive ch'i flowing into the vehicle. But more to the point, feng che will not work in most minivans because of their sharp edges. The only vehicle that is truly amenable to the feng che philosophy is the Toyota Previa. Unfortunately, Toyota stopped making them in 1997.” It goes without saying that car design is one of the most important components of a fully feng che'd lifestyle. Sid Mamet, founder of Forbidden City Fiat, which now operates six showrooms in the Greater Los Angeles area, stresses the importance of rounded automotive features. “Basically, you want to go small and curvy, with nice scalloped headlights and fenders,” says Mamet, noting that it’s no accident the 2000 models of high-end car manufacturers are a lot less boxy than these same cars were in the ‘90s. “Just forget about Humvees,” he adds.

To help neophytes devise the most psychically salubrious routes to and from work, a company called Santa Monica Geomantic.com has devised a software program that produces detailed maps showing you how to get from your particular point “A” to point “B” without traversing too many four-way intersections-or driving too close to the ocean. “In theory, the Pacific Ocean should be a source of tremendous positive ch'i,” says Kim Poulin, founder of Santa Monica Geomantic.com. “But medical waste and sewage discharges brought on by El Niño have seriously eroded the ocean’s upside ch'i. So, if it’s at all possible, you want to drive as far inland as possible, even if it means taking that long detour through the Valley.”

Long detours are no obstacle to people who are serious about feng che. One high-ranking MGM executive, already uncomfortable with the nearness of both the studio and his home to the Pacific Ocean, was so determined to approach the studio parking lot uniquely from the north (a particularly demanding tenet of feng che) he took to driving all the way to Santa Barbara in order to keep directionally correct without making a complete U-turn (feng che strongly discourages U-turns). He was one of the few executives who had nothing to do with The Mod Squad but was fired anyway because he spent so little time in his office. One struggling producer trying to turn his life around via feng che was killed on the way back to his house in Topanga when he swerved to avoid a pack of coyotes while navigating the winding turns of Topanga Canyon Boulevard. According to his wife, the man had gone out to buy some echinacea and goldenseal but had driven thirty-four miles out of his way to avoid the negative energy emanating from Malibu Beach.

“David led a feng che life and I’m sure he would have wanted to meet a feng che death,” says his widow, Melissa Redon. “Feng che had completely turned his life around: he was off drugs, he was reconciled with his parents, and he was getting ready to show his new script to Edward James Olmos. Without feng che, David would have ended his life as a complete loser.”

It remains to be seen whether feng che will ever preside over an empire as far-flung as its more ancient cousin feng shui. Even the buyers of O.J. Simpson’s former house had a feng shui expert assess the property (she concluded it had been a source of positive energy for Simpson, with its southwest direction and large swimming pool). And in case anyone doubts the ability of the entertainment industry to amplify the effects of any trend it fixes upon, presidential hopeful Donald Trump incorporates feng shui principles into the design of his new real estate ventures. Clearly, feng che has a long way to go before it can claim that kind of influence, but if the current mood in Los Angeles is any indication, feng che will soon be coming to an interstate, an intersection or a multilevel parking garage near you. These days, California freeways routinely provide motorists with updates on negative ch'i emanating from fatal accidents, and parking lots all over Los Angeles are hastily being redesigned in circular or oval shapes so that no one will ever again have to park in a dark corner where killer ch'i will seep into their vehicles. The entertainment community has so completely embraced the feng che approach to vehicle design that cars with sharp edges are instantly identifiable as being driven by inner-city gangs, migrant workers, irony boys, or goths.

As Li Sang Yin puts it: “Feng che isn’t simply about harmonious commuting. Feng che is about life itself. When positive ch'i flows in from the highways, the byways, the upholstery and even the carburetor, things like Bicentennial Man just don’t happen. That’s why this town loves feng che.”

THE PRINCIPLES OF FENG CHE: A PRIMER

  1. Replace all car ornaments with wind chimes, bamboo pipes and red or gold sashes. Remove such objects as velour dice, Fighting Irish Leprechauns or bobbing-head baseball mascots, which deflect positive ch'i away from the vehicle. This is particularly true of leprechauns, whose negative ch'i derives from substratal ethnic incongruity.
  2. Remove all bumper stickers, especially confrontational or vulgar messages. These attract enormous quantities of killer ch'i.
  3. Always drive with the windows closed, even on days when neither heat nor air conditioning is necessary. Open windows squander positive ch'i.
  4. Plug up all apertures such as cigarette lighters, ashtrays, vents, and glove compartments, preventing the egress of positive ch'i. Tape decks and compact disc players must always be occupied by cassettes or CDs.
  5. Never drive to work from the south. If you live far to the south or your office, move. If this is not possible, drive east, then north, then south, but only in a very wide arc. Or hire a driver and sit with your back to him facing an inflatable replica of the Three-Legged Toad God of Wealth.
  6. Never leave your car in the corner of a parking lot, especially if you work in the film industry. There is more negative ch'i in the corner of a Los Angeles parking lot than any other place in the world, not only because of the negative ch'i seeping into the lot from the corners, but because of the residual negative ch'i from all the other drivers who once parked in your spot.
  7. Never try to feng che a station wagon. Sell it, give it away, burn it. Just don’t try to feng che it. You are merely throwing good money after bad.

This article originally appeared in the February 2000 issue of Movieline.

Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a humorist, critic and author from Philadelphia who graduated from Saint Joseph's University.