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Globe-trotting gurus

Saturday, June 7, 2003
The Star
By: Lee Siew Peng

For RM10,000, would you rather have a fantastic round-the-world holiday, or a feng shui mastery class in Oxford? LEE SIEW PENG speaks to the peripatetic professionals of feng shui

WHAT do you think goes on in the Quarrell Room of Exeter College, Oxford? Debates? Sure sounds like it. Academic dialogues? Very likely. Lectures? Most definitely. This is, after all, the college that educated the likes of J. R. R. Tolkien, Philip Pullman and Martin Amis.

But a course on feng shui? Oh yes. That too.

This ancient and distinguished seat of learning recently played host to the very first feng shui conference conducted by a Malaysian. "Well-being designers", "energy work consultants", and just plain old boring "feng shui practitioners" – they were all there. There was even a commodities banker and a CEO in the group. They had come from as far as Australia, Greece, France, South Africa, Belgium, Germany, the UK, US and, yes, even Malaysia.

They had all come for four days of BaZi (also known as "Eight Characters" or "Four Pillars", a highly specialised branch of feng shui that analyses a person’s destiny based on date and time of birth), conducted by Joey Yap, 27-year-old feng shui whiz kid.

From the hugs, kisses and exclamations of "How lovely to see you again!", it was obvious that these aspiring astrologers weren’t meeting for the first time; in fact, many had attended classes together in the past. Indeed, a number of them had been studying with Yap since he first started teaching five years ago.

And they do feng shui full-time – and get paid for it. This may sound a little odd in Malaysia, where anything less than a high-flying corporate job has "loser" written all over it, and feng shui is something one does on the side, if at all. ("Aiya, I know a bit-lah . . . but just do for fun only, not serious-one . . .")

I should be so lucky

Perhaps it’s because they truly believe in it; so much so that many left well-paying, "glamorous" jobs to do it full-time. You could put their conversions down to, well, karma. Serendipity. Luck. Perfect timing. What have you.

Take Anna Hofele, 48, for instance. "My destiny was foretold by an astrologer. She said that I would go into homes and make people happy," says the bubbly Belgian. "Then I went home, opened a booklet, Introduction to Feng Shui, and it hit me, ‘This is what the lady told me!’ Then I went online and discovered the school and went to Singapore, and what I learnt was nothing like our Western concept of feng shui at all."

Furthermore, job restructuring came at an opportune time. "I had just been looking for an opportunity to leave, and I grabbed it. I’ve never regretted it," smiles the ex-assistant marketing director.

On the flipside, Shari De Nobrega, 36, from South Africa, started studying feng shui five years ago to disprove it. "But the more I learnt and practised, the better the results were, so I converted myself, basically!" she laughs.

Others took the more "conventional" route, such as a life-long interest in feng shui. Georgeanne Contayannopoulos from Greece first heard about feng shui at university, and started studying it in 1985. "I loved it from the first moment I read about it. I must have every single book that’s written about it!" she laughs. The former space efficiency engineer went full-time in 1993, after feeling confident enough and years of being asked for advice.

Angela Ang, 31, a Malaysian who lives in the UK, was, like De Nobrega, a sceptic, but is now a full-time feng shui consultant and lecturer.

"I realised that as a lawyer, I could make substantial amounts, but it wouldn’t fulfil me spiritually," she says. "With the career I have chosen now, I feel I can give back to society a lot more than what I would be doing as a lawyer."

It makes one wonder, how long before the commodities banker too gives up her full-time job? Or would she use feng shui to make a killing at the stock market?

With a little bit of luck?

Most of the consultants have altruistic reasons for their change of career, however; there’s nothing so vulgar as talk of profits. It would seem that they come back, course after course, to fine-tune their ability to help others.

As Hofele says, "I believe in cosmic qi strongly, and want to use it to improve lives. I can heal people from a distance with telepathy, and have been coaching people to be happy the past two years, making them healthier, less stressed out and frustrated."

De Nobrega sees herself in a similar light. "Most of my life I’ve been a helper of other people, in the sense of helping them solve their problems. I see so many problems with careers, relationships, money, health. Feng shui, and especially BaZi, give me another dimension to providing answers to problems that they don’t know how to solve. Its given me a lot of pleasure, and a career I never ever thought I’d get into."

Good acts, obviously, are better than good intentions, and the consultants list numerous examples of how feng shui had been used to "save" others.

"I had a client who, upon three weeks of moving into a house, developed an unknown blood disease, so the wife called me. He was in critical care; the doctors had no idea what this disease was, and it was killing him," De Nobrega recalls. "So I did a feng shui reading, and found a couple of things that pointed towards blood diseases! After we remedied them, the husband recovered in three weeks. To this day the doctors still have no idea what disease he had."

For Contayannopoulos, rearranging the position of her mother’s bed according to feng shui principles helped her walk again. "The doctors said she wouldn’t!" she smiles gleefully, adding that mum felt the strength sapping away after moving out to live elsewhere. "She kept saying, ‘I’ve got to get back to Georgeanne’s place to get well again.’"

Even if they can’t really do anything, comfort and reassurance always help. Goodrick relates: "I did a reading for one of my students and predicted that her husband had been made redundant. But I said, ‘Don’t worry, it looks better next year,’ and next year, he got a job! I wasn’t able to help, but I could say don’t worry, hang on, things will get better, and they have."

Of course, feng shui is also used for self-edification. Margaret Yip, the CEO of World Corporate Golf Malaysia, does feng shui "for fun", but says: "Ever since I began studying feng shui, I’ve used it to make myself happy and found that as I go deeper, things begin to work for me. I saw why the first half of my life was full of challenge and turmoil. Now, people wonder why I am so successful and have so many exclusive franchises and business ventures. I can say it’s all up to my BaZi.

"I use it for employing staff, laying out my office, determining auspicious dates for projects, travelling, signing contracts and proposals. Through BaZi I also began to appreciate people as individuals. Nobody is bad, according to BaZi; they’re literally born that way! I’m more accepting now, que sera sera and all that."

I want to believe

Still – despite the overwhelming feel-good factor – why believe?

De Nobrega puts it succinctly: "For everything, when learnt properly, there is a logical explanation. I found that I couldn’t debunk feng shui – it’s such a tightly woven system of formulae based on very sound principles. When you learn those principles it’s easy to see where things come from, why you use certain avenues or methods. If you don’t understand why, feng shui becomes dubious."

Hager van der Weid, 45, offers a unique perspective as a Tunisian Muslim feng shui consultant. "I’ve discovered it fits so well with my life. There really is no connection between feng shui and religion. I don’t have to believe in a particular god, like Buddha, to use it, or for it to work. It is absolutely not haram, because God has said in the Quran that you can reach the seventh sky with your science."

This was a point echoed by Joey Yap over the four days: that feng shui is a science, and there’s no hocus-pocus about it. Even to a "blur" doubting Thomas like this writer, the BaZi course appeared to have the beauty of mathematical precision and the intrigue of logical deduction. No wonder so many consultants said they found feng shui intellectually stimulating.

"Just like the Arabs were good at astronomy, the Chinese were good at mastering the art of the environment," van der Weid, a practising lawyer in Switzerland, continues. "You don’t have to be a Christian or Muslim to do it. It’s not about religion or magic. It works whether you believe in it or not."

She gives an example. "When my father first heard that I was studying feng shui, he said it was wrong, haram, syirik. But I said no. I ‘rearranged’ his house for him and he saw things beginning to change in his life! It’s like acupuncture; if you stick needles in to heal the body, then feng shui is acupuncture for the home."

Feng shui might be able to find more willing converts in the West (as Goodrick says, "People are always very interested, and once they know you do something like astrology, they’ll ask, ‘Oh, will you look at mine?’"), but van der Weid seeks to introduce it in Arabic countries.

"The more examples I give of successes with feng shui, the more I think people will be attracted to this. It doesn’t cost a lot, and is really great value for your money. Why shouldn’t Muslim countries use this science? It can help us, because we are poor. We need to have something that can improve our lives, so we should take it as an opportunity to learn, not as something that is haram."

Down on your luck?

There are drawbacks to possessing such knowledge, though. "I feel it’s a very great responsibility to do feng shui, because you really can kill people," Contayannopoulos shudders. "I can tell horror stories that I’ve seen in my own practice. It’s one thing to hear in class that such and such a combination can do certain things, but it’s another when you’ve witnessed it yourself. People literally die."

"To us in the West, it’s amazing that you can put eight characters (in BaZi) and read so much from them," adds Goodrick. "But the downside is that using these characters, we see all the problems, all the clashes, and we panic about what we can do about them. If, say, I know I’ll have some kind of ‘metal’ clash, then I won’t do anything dangerous, like road-racing. Yes, it is initially frightening, but the problem is still there, it’ll happen – the upside is we know what to do about it."

This is where BaZi comes in handy – you can literally "cheat" fate. Take Goodrick’s case. If her BaZi chart for, say, July, involves a ‘metal’ clash that entails the loss of blood, she could donate blood that month, thus simultaneously "avoiding" any ill-luck and, (in a warped kind of way) fulfiling her destiny. BaZi is also supposedly less lethal; wrong feng shui may kill, but a wrong BaZi prediction just means starting over again.

Apparently, according to Joey Yap, BaZi is also a very useful tool for women who want to check if there’s a third, or even fourth or fifth party involved in their relationships.

Mind you, the consultants themselves endorse that BaZi is not the answer to life’s problems. But, as Goodrick explains, "Various things will be pointed out that I’ll be able to avoid. I’ll be able to do something about the ‘clashes’, rather than just amble along in complete ignorance. I can take control, take steps to minimise problems."

But even for an out-of-pocket sceptic, the snag must surely be the cost: this Bazi course cost £1,000 (RM6,000), and after adding airfare, accommodation and meals for four days, RM10,000 would be a more realistic sum. Consider too, that one feng shui module costs US$1,800 (RM6,876) – and they range from Levels 1 to 4.

But then again, this writer did overhear that consultants charge something like US$300 (RM1,146) per session, so perhaps money isn’t really an issue?

For Yap, the ends justify the means. "It’s not the money you pay but the effort and time you spend. In life, you should pursue something good when given the opportunity. If you have the chance to learn this, then you should travel for it. It’s not a waste of time or money. Though some of my friends call me crazy: ‘What-lah, fly so far for what? Feng shui!’"

Contayannopoulos is equally pragmatic. "I would never miss any of Joey’s classes because it’s the only way I know I will get the knowledge I want."

That should be good enough reason to keep on flying and learning. One can only wish them good luck in their studies.

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