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The Power of Place : Ancient Chinese Art of <i> Feng Shui</i> Helps Believers Determine if Placement of Home Ensures Prosperity

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Lagatree is a Long Beach free</i> -<i> lance writer</i>

Last April, escrow officer Catherine Chiou was working with a Chinese couple who were getting a great buy on a house they loved. But just two weeks into escrow, the couple abruptly backed out of the purchase. Chiou was not surprised:

The couple’s feng shui master had nixed the deal.

“It happens about four times a year,” said Chiou, who has been with Century Escrow in Monterey Park since 1983. “People make an offer, get as far as escrow instructions and then they have a feng shui master check it out.” Chiou said she wishes people would check the feng shui before they get to escrow. But she never blames anyone who drops a deal because of bad feng shui.

The ancient Chinese art of feng shui (pronounced “fung sui”) takes the real estate maxim “location is everything” to a whole new plane.

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Feng shui links the placement of objects to fate. According to its tenets, each direction of the compass controls certain aspects of life. If you pay attention to the orientation of your house or office, and the arrangement of your belongings and furnishings, you may have good feng shui. Luck, wealth and health will follow. If you have bad feng shui, watch out. Bad luck, poor health, poverty, even death may overtake you. (See accompanying story on what you can do to “repair” bad feng shui.)

Literally, feng shui means wind and water. But to real estate agents and home builders it means dollars and cents.

Los Angeles-based Kaufman & Broad Home Corp., California’s biggest home builder, has been designing homes with feng shui in mind for the past several years. “It just falls into the category of customer needs and preferences,” said Marketing Director Eric Elder. For example, one rule of feng shui is that the main stairs in a house should never face the front door. “When there’s going to be a high percentage of Asian buyers,” Elder said, “we don’t do that, we turn them (the stairs). It keeps the luck in the house.”

Another principle advises that a house facing south is very lucky. But Elder says there are limits to what can be done, “With all the subdivision rules, you can’t pick up a house and turn it on the lot,” he said. “But the main thing is that we understand what the customer is talking about and it gives us a relationship with them.”

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That relationship is not always easy to establish. Jim Rood, a broker with Century 21 U-S Realty in Covina, says it usually takes a long time working with Asian clients before they will even mention feng shui. “You have to build rapport first,” he advised. But depending on the circumstance, the subject of feng shui can come up abruptly. Rood tells the story of an agent who took some Asian clients to live at a house that had three 4s in the address (the number 4 is believed by some feng shui adherents to represent death). “The clients wouldn’t even go in,” Rood said. “They said, ‘Why would I want to enter a house that said, “Die, die, die?’ ”

Randall Lewis, executive vice president of marketing for Lewis Homes of California, the Southland’s third largest builder, said the family-owned development firm has made it a point to build houses Asians will want to enter. Seven years ago the Upland-based developer bought 30 acres of land in El Monte. Lewis said he began hearing that there were a lot of Chinese buying there and that he’d better pay attention to feng shui . “I didn’t hear it from everyone, but enough people so that I decided I needed to learn about it,” he said.

Lewis learned about feng shui by hiring an intercultural consultant, Angi Ma Wong. The daughter of a Taiwanese diplomat, Wong grew up in New Zealand, Taiwan and Washington, D.C. She has a bachelor’s degree in English from USC and since 1989 has prospered as a cross-cultural entrepreneur. In April she wrote and published a book titled “Target: The U.S. Asian Market--A Practical Guide to Doing Business.”

Wong conducts seminars on subjects ranging from cultural sensitivity for non-Asian business people to feng shui for developers and real estate brokers. “I’m a generalist,” Wong said. “I don’t know all there is to know about all the Asian cultures. But I can facilitate relationships between Asians and non-Asians.”

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Most of Wong’s clients have been builders anxious to learn how to design homes that Asians would like to buy. “She’s been first-class,” Lewis said. “A lot of builders and a lot of other businesses need to learn from her.”

And many have. More than 30 major builders in California and Hawaii have hired Wong to teach them the basics of feng shui .

Wong stresses that she is not a feng shui expert, but she is well-versed enough to have created a kind of feng shui primer she has titled “The Practical Feng Shui Chart.”

Wong says she’s not necessarily a true believer where feng shui is concerned. But she does adhere to certain principles in her own home “because I believe in harmony and balance, which are the underlying principles of feng shui.

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Real estate brokers Peter and Jenny Lee are true believers.

According to Peter, they arrived at their convictions by careful study. When they first came to California from Taiwan eight years ago, the couple mostly bought foreclosed property. Said Peter: “We got curious about why the properties had been foreclosed--sometimes it was divorce, financial problems, bankruptcy--so I studied to learn about the relationship between feng shui and foreclosure.”

After four years under the tutelage of renowned feng shui master Yun Lin of Berkeley, Lee said he began to see a direct relationship between the principles of the ancient art and the personal circumstances of believers and nonbelievers alike. “Good feng shui really does help,” he concluded.

The Lees themselves paid $3,000 to two different feng shui masters before they bought their home in Rowland Heights last year. The masters gave the go-ahead for the purchase, but the Lees had to make several “adjustments” to correct problems: A Chinese scroll invoking prosperity is tacked to a tree just outside the front door. The scroll mitigates the negative effect of the tree’s placement. (A tree outside the door can block wealth from entering the home.) A folding screen inside the front door keeps good luck and prosperity from running in a straight line out the back door. Crystals hang at the entrances of rooms to compensate for less than ideal placement of bedroom doors. (Facing doors can cause arguments between the rooms’ occupant.)

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The Lees, who work with Homelife Realty in Artesia, use their own knowledge of feng shui to guide clients to good properties. In fact, said Peter Lee, he will not take a listing on a property with bad feng shui . “I tell them I’m too busy right now or something, but I just can’t do it,” he said.

Broker Laura Lee (no relation to Peter and Jenny) of Century 21 Astro in Cerritos has a bachelor’s in biology but makes no apologies for her conviction that feng shui is more than a quaint superstition. Lee, the president of the Chinese Realtors Assn., said she believes, “It’s a science to a certain degree, because there’s lots of proof that it works.” Lee was born in Beijing, grew up in Taiwan and moved to the United States nearly 20 years ago. “It may sound strange that we well-educated people take this seriously,” she said, “but the older I get, the more I realize that our human wisdom cannot explain everything.”

And in any case, Lee says, it’s good business. More than half her clients are Asian and about half take feng shui very seriously. “100% of the people from Taiwan won’t buy a house if the front door faces the stairs,” she said flatly. “Also, many Vietnamese and Korean people believe that. And even if they don’t believe, they’re concerned about resale.”

Feng shui does play a role in determining the value of a home. According to Peter Lee, property with good feng shui will command a higher price from Asian buyers. He says houses near a Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights are especially highly prized and estimates they sell for 10% to 20% more than houses farther away. Although, Lee added, houses directly opposite the temple have very bad feng shui , “because the god is too strong and shouldn’t be facing your house.”

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Jean Wang of Rowland Heights says she believes in feng shui because she’s experienced its positive effects. Wang, who has an import-export business, and her husband, Lawrence, an electrical engineer, used Peter Lee as their realtor.

Lee screened about 30 houses for good feng shui before showing them the one they now live in. “He told me this house is good,” she said, explaining that in their old home she and her husband used to argue frequently. “But now in this new house, every time the angry words come to my mouth, I eat them. Because this house is so peaceful.”

Jean Wang and her family are part of a powerful force in the Southern California real estate market.

According to 1990 census figures, 250,000 Asians live in Los Angeles County and they make up an increasingly substantial minority in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. On the whole, Asian-Americans in California enjoy healthy household incomes.

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These facts are not lost on non-Asian brokers. Century 21’s Jim Rood says Asian clients sometimes make up as much as one-third of his business. He said he feels confident that he can give good service to those clients. “We’ve learned that if a problem with feng shui comes up and can’t be solved, we just show them other properties,” he said. “We don’t try to argue or persuade them out of their beliefs.” Rood said he doubts he’s lost many sales because of feng shui “because we can always find them different homes.”

As for escrow officer Catherine Chiou, who has lost business because of feng shui , she takes it in stride. Asked if she had her own house checked before she bought it she exclaimed: “Of course! If somebody told you, ‘This house is haunted,’ would you buy it?”


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