By Ruth Kim
HONG KONG, China, 10:10 a.m. — In a country where a moustache or a howling dog is considered bad luck, it’s no surprise that the Chinese picked such an opportune date for the opening ceremonies — August 8, 2008 — at 8:08:08 pm. Eight, the luckiest number in China, sounds very close to the word “prosperity” in Chinese. In the same way, I was warned not to mispronounce four, which can sound like “death” with a twist in the tone.
Even in Hong Kong, where locals see themselves as more westernized than mainlanders, Chinese superstitions apply everywhere. Walking along sweaty, narrow sidewalks, you have to dodge mini shrines with incense, jutting out of local shops to fend off evil. In the business district of Central, Corporate moguls and CEOs practice feng shui — or Chinese geomancy according to wind and water forces.
“We don’t really talk about it,” said my local colleague, Trista Cheung. And like most uncanny things, the less explained, the easier it seems to believe. Especially when it comes to fortune, the Chinese invariably follow the custom “just in case.”
A middle-aged Chinese lawyer, who spoke anonymously to “save face” (from cosmic forces… or his superiors), shared a strange instance he witnessed at his old law firm.
There was an “untouchable library,” he started with a mysterious smile, the only room in the office that a prophet advised should be kept in its original condition, without any renovations. While it was preserved for many years, a new boss demanded that the room be torn down for more office space. Following the alteration, he explained, at least twelve workers resigned, “by coincidence.”
“The company wasn’t doing very well then,” he said.
In expected panic, the firm heeded the same psychic’s recommendations once again — and this time installed window blinds that had to be kept closed at all times and placed four heavy stones in corners of the office to “rebalance and stabilize the whole floor.”
Stories like this one are not uncommon, but the most ardent believers know better than to play with preventative measures when it comes to prophecy.
Peter Wong ’10, a student from the north Kowloon side of Hong Kong Island, searched for appropriate English words to explain why furniture in any room could not be easily rearranged.
“We follow what the feng shui master says,” he simply stated. Even the most prestigious investment banks, like the one Wong works for this summer, put their traders in the best seats in the office.
In following these “masters” — who visit homes and companies around Chinese New Year and charge about $40,000 HKD (or $5,700 US) for one session — some families break down walls, buy new furniture, or even, new homes. For those who want to control fate in less costly ways, there are street options like the women under the Canal Road Flyover in
Causeway Bay, who charge $30 to $40 HKD or about $5 US for “Da Xiao Ren,” which literally translates to “hitting the small guy.”
Practicing a kind of modern voodoo, these women gather under the bridge to provide the services of mild revenge.
When approached, they first ask: “Who do you want to hit?” They write the name on a paper human figure then whack it with slippers or shoes, on your behalf.
But many passersby laugh and say they don’t actually believe in this kind of black magic.
“I think it’s mostly older women who visit these people,” 24-year-old Sharon Chan said, suggesting that the younger generation often knew better. “It’s for old people to release and express their anger.”
Instead, locals around Chan’s age casually play with tarot cards at a cafe, read monthly horoscopes in magazines or wear crystal charms around their wrists.
Still, superstitions are sewn deep in China’s culture and come up in unexpected ways.
While browsing through one of the many shopping malls in Hong Kong last week, I was surprised to find some strange space sculptures (half sensational art, half interactive toys) planted haphazardly throughout five floors. Obviously out of place, these sculptures impressively distracted shoppers (though only for a few seconds) from their favorite pastime.
At the drop of a coin, the large, metallic creatures — designed by Japanese aluminum sculptor cum illustrator Hideki Kawabata — turn into astrologers. Emanating flashy colors and digital space sounds, the sculpture reveals some insights — ranging from O.K. to Excellent — about romance, money, career or, just to be safe, general luck.
“Superstition is still a habit,” Chan admitted. “My parents told me that I shouldn’t walk close along the wall because that’s where ghosts walk.”
“I might tell my children the same thing, if I don’t want them walking near the wall,” she added.
As habit for some, an excuse to redecorate for others — or menopausal PMS in most cases of “Da Xiao Ren” — superstition can’t be taken too seriously in Hong Kong. After all, some diehard trends like the fortune cookie at the old China Club presents as many meaningless messages as those we find in our humble Ivy Noodle back home.