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True feng shui

Friday, May 30, 2003
The Star
By: Lee Siew Peng

Feng shui: a line of work plagued by charlatans, or a respectable, reputable means of making a living? LEE SIEW PENG meets a young man set on giving this ancient art a good name.

Feng shui master: a straggly, white-haired samfoo-clad old man gripping a geomancy compass, encircled by bottles of snake oil and a cloud of intoxicating incense, sitting in a dark corner of a temple?

And what sort of sifu looks like a freshly scrubbed ketua pengawas and calls himself “Joey”, anyway? Aren’t they known as “Dragon Master” whatchamacallit?

Joey Yap conducting a BaZi class in England.- Picture by Christopher Leong.

My scepticism was perhaps an indication of the scorn most of us heap on professed feng shui “experts”.

But Joey Yap – researcher, practitioner, consultant and scholar of feng shui, founder and CEO of Yap Global Consulting – is hell-bent on correcting our misgivings.

At 27, he’s probably one of the youngest feng shui consultants out there. (“And,” he says, “if I may modestly put it, the one with the most students.”) He also runs three other internet-related companies, which, given his relatively young age, made this cynical old crone wonder: What’s your problem? With five successful businesses under your belt, why feng shui?

I see this in your future . . .

Because it all began with feng shui, that’s why. Professing a childhood love of “Chinese metaphysics”, and seeking “foresight”, the kid who was supposed to be an accountant began studying the “mysteries of the unknown” 10 years ago with a Master Chan, a local feng shui sifu whom he credits for introducing him to the art at a time when there were no books.

At university in Australia, Yap started consulting on a professional basis (“People started asking me to do it once they found out I knew feng shui. I made a comfortable living!”), and created a website, Chinese Feng Shui Consultancy. His consulting fees paid for classes with feng shui masters in Hong Kong, which he attended during term holidays.

Feng Shui? Fiddle-dee-dee!

Yap admits that he never thought about going into feng shui consulting full time, but consultations snowballed after he returned to Malaysia in 1998. “It made me think, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’d better do it properly’, otherwise I’d just be another fortune-teller,” he recalls, citing how feng shui consultants tend to be considered “lower class”, or branded as charlatans, no thanks to the promulgation of hocus-pocus.

“I have a personal drive to demystify feng shui. Too many people think there are a lot of secrets: ‘Oh, feng shui is about this or that.’ There’s also a lot of superstition and culture in the mix,” he points out. “Take the fook (luck) character hung upside down. It’s just a Chinese character and has nothing to do with the energies of a house. I’m not against culture but I appreciate the difference between culture and feng shui.”

He strongly objects to the belief that wearing a particular trinket or colour will enhance one’s luck. “Feng shui knowledge is not product-based,” he stresses.

A “fishy” example of product-based feng shui is the craze for arowana and flower horn fish. “They’re just fish! Just because they look golden doesn’t mean they’ll bring in luck. Symbols are not feng shui!” Yap sounds almost exasperated. “In feng shui, fish in water are supposed to keep the water element lively, so really, any fish will do. No point wasting RM30,000!”

Yap relates another instance when a distressed woman rang up after her goldfish had died. The goldfish, she believed, was supposed to absorb her bad luck; was its death proof that she had just too much to handle? Yap told her perhaps she should have changed the water more often!

Likewise, the numbers four and eight – abhorred and adored by superstitious Chinese – have nothing to do with bad or good luck. As Yap explains, “They’re just homonyms. All this phobia is just superstition.” Thus, instead of joining the swarm of happy couples getting married on supposedly propitious dates like August 8 (8/8), Yap says a truly auspicious date would be one that is in harmony with the bride and groom’s times and dates of birth, which can be divined through BaZi (a specialised branch of feng shui that analyses a person’s destiny).

Nor should one be fooled into thinking that proper use of feng shui will turn one into an overnight millionaire. “Joey Yap says no such thing!” Yap declares. Luck (or “peak performance”, in Joey Yap-speak) in feng shui, it would seem, is something that is highly personalised.

Feng Shui, Inc.

And how else does Yap plan to dispel the hocus-pocus? “Treat what I do as a respectable business,” he determines. “I want to disseminate important knowledge professionally and systematically.” The courses developed by Yap, will certainly see to that – no more skulking around temples.

What’s more, Yap also founded Yap Global Consulting (YGC), his own personal and separate company, in January this year. (It’s really Chinese Feng Shui Consultancy in a new form.) If the School takes care of education, YGC is tailored for the corporate line, and thus is managed like a pinstriped, power-suited public listed company.

A team of consultants audits different-sized “projects”, with Yap handling the more difficult “cases”. They brainstorm regularly for the best possible solutions, write reports, and even have client files with progress reports, an online system, newsletters and websites that answer questions and address various aspects of feng shui.

Not your traditional feng shui consultancy, to be sure. Even the methods of payment are professional.

Yap chuckles: “The traditional fee for feng shui advice is an ang pau. But if your client is a big multinational company, how are they going to pay you an ang pau for a consultation? So I invoice them!” Other creative terms include “Consulting: Interiors and Design” (office reading and layout) and “Personality and Behaviour Profiling” for BaZi (which, in addition to purportedly chart destiny, is also used to identify trait and character according to time and date of birth).

Yap’s notion of professional feng shui, apparently, is that which has been tried and tested – he says he carries out his own experimentation with feng shui theories. “Precisely because we cannot guarantee feng shui, every theory has to be backed up with an application. Even feng shui has an expiry date. Everything changes, so what works at a particular time may not work at another.”

If it doesn’t work . . . well, like any consulting firm worth its salt, there should be follow-up – a consultation is not a one-off, after all. No, not even in feng shui.

Teach me O master

In addition to reinventing the image and commerce of feng shui, Yap is also changing the way feng shui knowledge is obtained. His Professional Feng Shui and Homestudy series cover various branches of feng shui – BaZi, face-reading, astrology, palmistry, you name it – all delivered with the same brand of professionalism.

The difference is that there’s no meditating at the feet of a master here; Yap’s classes are about a systematic syllabus, detailed workbooks, and slick multimedia presentations.

Yap describes his teaching style as “Modern, but I still value ancient teachings. I just simplify and present information in a simple way. I encourage debate and questioning in my class; with traditional masters, it’s normally a case of, ‘You are stupid therefore you do not understand.’ If I don’t have the answer, I will get back to you.”

Course content, which in ancient times may have taken 30 years for a disciple to obtain, is distilled into relative soundbites of three or four days. Yap compares his feng shui seminars to a university course: “You don’t need 30 years. We simplify it, but I wouldn’t say that it’s that easy because we still keep the quality. Many people give up trying to learn feng shui but the system I have created will help dispel that.”

Still, like any “only one of its kind” course of study, particularly one conducted abroad, the cost can be relatively high. “Joey Yap stuff is good but not cheap,” Yap clarifies. “Audiences abroad can afford the courses – for them it’s a breath of fresh air after so many years of feng shui hocus-pocus. The interest is there for quality education.”

Yap observes that “the Western concept of feng shui is that it’s a placebo, so there’s a niche in this,” i.e. debunking the gobbledygook and imparting the “truth” about feng shui. In that respect, Yap turns the white guru stereotype on its ear: a Malaysian export teaching a very Chinese subject to a predominantly Western audience.

What about the local market? Yap makes it clear that he originally tried to conduct the seminars here, “but in Malaysia, they bargain with you. ‘Wah, you charging US$1,800-ah (RM7,200), my other teacher RM200 only.’ But now that people overseas are reaping the benefits, those in Malaysia want it too! The Malaysian-Singaporean mentality is, if it’s good abroad, OK, then it’s good. They can see the difference now that it’s not snake oil and incense. The need to know has been conveyed, therefore I can now introduce the courses here.”

I quibble with him over his rates. He adroitly justifies: “I don’t see it as an altruistic thing. Even with friends I don’t do free consultations. Free advice can be the most expensive, because I’ve not studied their problems, I’d just be giving out a free tip based on a few pointers.

“It’s not an issue of money, it’s a matter of understanding. You don’t ask a management consultant, ‘Give me a free tip for my business,’ do you? So I have to run this on a professional, corporate level. There is no such thing as fatalistic science. I believe in problems and solutions, therefore my prices are very different.”

He adds that he does do charity work. “We don’t charge health care centres or temples, but for businesses . . . of course have to charge-lah.” In any case, the profits go into more research – even today, Yap still goes back to Hong Kong to learn from the masters. “They know I’m doing this professionally so they charge me more. One lesson can cost US$2,000 (RM7,640) for just one or two hours a day.”

In comparison, Yap dispenses advice at and for free; and instead of waiting to be approached, takes the knowledge to the students (he has 38 international schools, and some 3,000 students worldwide).

“My long-term goal is that every student will gain a professional knowledge (of feng shui) and that my experience will bring them to that level – to the point where, if they wanted, they should have enough knowledge to practise,” Yap says. “That way I feel I have contributed something.”

His accomplishments as an entrepreneur all but suggest that mystics are made, not born. Despite being nominated for an Outstanding Young Malaysian award, Yap does not see himself as super-successful. “I still have a long way to go. In the long run, my goals are for the School and business to do well. Winning the award did not cross my mind; imparting knowledge is more fulfiling.”

What else does the future hold?

The biggest challenge in this line of work, Yap acknowledges, is his age. “I get the comment, ‘You don’t have white hair’ quite a lot!” he laments. “But I don’t need white hair for results – judge me by my results and professionalism and commitment, not my age. I don’t feel inferior now – I used to, but now I’m more comfortable. The main challenge is my age; it’s hard to build the company name and trust with clients when they see how ‘old’ you are.

“Even most of my students are older than I am. But that’s not a bad thing. One of the reasons why I can pick feng shui up so fast and get progressively better at what I do is because I get all this exposure and input from my older students – they tell me what works and what doesn’t.”

Yap also has his masters to contend with. “Some of them aren’t too happy that I’m doing this because they think I’m changing the traditional way of learning – 30 years and all that – and that I’m teaching it too easily,” Yap sighs. “No disrespect to them, but I believe one should help others get that knowledge. Not everybody can sit down and learn for 30 years! If this knowledge is available, why should the world miss out?

“With the old masters, the attitude is, ‘If I give you this knowledge – Oh! All my secrets are gone!’ But they’re actually trivialising feng shui by holding back all the ‘top’ knowledge, because that only gives rise to superstition.”

Yap also tries to separate the spiritual from the feng shui. “I have to if I want to give feng shui an educational syllabus.” This is not to say that Yap, a Buddhist, is not spiritual. “Many practitioners of feng shui are also spiritual people. But the spiritual and the scientific are two different things. That’s why I always tell people, if you want to catch ghosts, don’t come to me!”

But for those who want to follow in his footsteps, he has this to say: “Firstly, continue studying the essence and formulae of feng shui. Say no to blind faith and question everything. Don’t just accept concepts, study the classics to find out their true meanings. Do not accept things at face value, for every application has a sound theory, historical reference and logical process.

“Secondly, continue your education by seeking out the masters. Being able to read Chinese is not a requirement. I had the benefit of teachers who taught me well. I taught myself Chinese. It is difficult but not impossible. (Though, to aid students, his workbooks and notes are mostly in English.)

“Thirdly, you need to have friends who study it. Going it alone is very difficult.”

He pauses, smiles at my incredulous look, then adds self-assuredly and confidently, “And believe in it – because it works.”

Next week: Our reporter gets busy with BaZi, and talks to Joey Yap’s little band of student groupies. For details about Joey Yap, please call +603-2284-1213 .

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