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Much to the consternation of his non-Asian-American partners in that spring of 1992, Yee had already rejected a number of prospective office sites because they were tainted with bad feng shui. Pronounced "fung schway," or "fung schooey," depending upon what part of China one comes from, feng shui means "wind and water" and, as best Al Yee and others can explain it, relates to the art of harmonious placement of just about everything in the world.
Phoenix Asian Americans whose families emigrated from feng shui centers in Hong Kong and China have quietly practiced some version of the art for years.
"There is absolutely no scientific basis to this," explains Phoenix attorney Harvey Yee (no relation to Al). "We all know it's just supersition.
"But it works."
Now, feng shui is the rage among many non-Asian Americans in Phoenix. People who claim to be experts charge hefty fees to advise owners of homes and businesses on the status of their qi. The gist of feng shui is that a building has to fit in just the right way in the universe, the city, the street and its own plot of land. Devotees also believe gardens, fountains, furniture, artwork, doorways, windows and - well, you name it - must be placed in such a way as to harmoniously usher the energy of life, qi (pronounced "chee"), through a dwelling, enriching the health, wealth and spiritual life of the people inside.
The ancient art - no one knows exactly how ancient, but it's at least 2,400 years old - had hundreds of maddening and, depending on whom you talk to, occasionally contradictory rules. A round room is good for energy flow. A round room is bad for energy flow. Windows drain energy. Sitting with one's back to the window scatters one focus. Racing down a long hallway sucks energy from adjoining rooms. A hanging bookcase is oppressive. A ceiling fan over a bed disturbs rest. A desk should be backed up by a wall, which symbolizes a mountain and enriches negotiations. A bed should not face the door--it symbolizes death because corpses in ancient China were pulled out feet first. Jutting angles are aggressive, they cut off energy, they cause health problems. Buildings and rooms should have symbolic guardians (dragons, dogs, lions) to ward off bad luck and troublesome spirits.
Al Yee learned elementary feng shui from his mother. Yee's parents, owners of a grocery store in south central Phoenix, were emigrants from Canton, China. Yee's mother came only to be with her husband, stuck to the old ways, even refused to speak English. But she was curious enough about American culture to have her husband regularly translate Reader's Digest into Chinese characters.
The old ways work, Yee remembers his mother telling him several hundred times.
So Yee stuck to the old ways. He turned down prospective office sites that began and ended with the number four (which symbolizes death) or whose front doorways faced in the wrong direction (west is bad; east and north are good; south is okay).
"Al has a few superstitions," says Yee's partner Jim Desmond. Desmond's voice sounds slightly guarded, as though the very memory of the office hunt still bothers him a little.
In early 1992, Desmond located the round, vacant building at 3443 North Central where the firm now has its office.
Al Yee did not immediately cotton to the site--even though the deal made financial sense. The former office of Western Savings, an ill-fated savings and loan institution that had been taken over by the Resolution Trust Corporation, could be rented very, very cheaply.
Despite the financial advantage, Yee hired a California-based practitioner of feng shui to check out the building. Yee was concerned about the address, 3443 North Central. After all, four symbolizes death. He was relieved to learn that the number three is the number for life, which sandwiched and dominated the dreaded number four. The future office site was near a bank, which ensured wealth, Yee was told. Plus, qi would flow well through the circular building.
And don't worry about any bad luck associated with moving into the site of a defunct savings and loan, the practitioner said. You will prosper.
Yee's personal office in the new building is designed so his desk is several feet below a window--a window aligned with Yee's head could scatter his energy.
But, in what seems to be a grave contradiction, employee stockbrokers sit in offices where their heads are aligned with windows.
Not a problem, says Yee. He is the one making key decisions.
Yee's personal office also has a wealth corner--trimmed in red, a color symbolizing wealth. In a corner sits a Buddha, in another a Chinese figure representing long life.
But a potted plant, placed in Yee's office for the specific purpose of purifying and circulating qi, has withered and died. A bad omen, Yee says.
He will get a new plant this week.
In its first year at 3443 North Central, Al Yee is pleased to report, the brokerage firm of Yee, Desmond, Schroeder and Allen recovered all its start-up costs--a figure Yee prefers not to divulge.