Al Yee had to make sure qi flowed smoothly before he signed the lease for the North Central Avenue headquarters of the Phoenix brokerage firm of Yee, Desmond, Schroeder and Allen.
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.
Phoenix consumers have no choice but to rely on their guts when choosing a feng shui practitioner.
There's no friendly advice from the Architecture or Interior Design departments at Arizona State University--no one there feels knowledgeable enough to counsel people on qi. And there's no consumer watchdog group that focuses on feng shui rip-offs, no state licensing board to slap a fellow's hands for messing up feng shui.
The qi-needy customer must judge for himself if the consultant is really worth $100 to $150 an hour.
To further confuse the consumer, there are four ways to practice feng shui. Some practitioners say they "sense" energies in a room. Others study the meaning of symbols and things with which people surround themselves. Still others read a multiringed compass to figure out a building's relation to the solar system. And others check out the land forms, streets, streams, neighboring buildings to judge the qi.
One can use all four methods. Or just one. Or two. Or three.
Sometimes just a little feng shui might lead to good luck.
Or bad luck.
In the mid-1980s, Leonard Shoen, the patriarch of U-Haul International, placed marble Chinese feng shui guardian lions at the entrances of the company's corporate headquarters on North Central Avenue. But the guardians didn't ward off bad luck. In the years that followed, the Shoen family became involved in acrimonious, divisive, multimillion-dollar legal disputes that have resulted in several bankruptcies. The wife of one brother was murdered.
Leonard Shoen, whose leadership of the company was vigorously opposed by several of his own sons, recently "retired" from the company he had built.
Janet Cooper, public relations director for U-Haul, says she doesn't know if Leonard consulted with a feng shui expert about the placement of the guardian statuary.
She doesn't get much of an opportunity to talk to Leonard Shoen, she says.
"What we are really talking about is how places affect behavior and emotions," says Johndennis Govert, a 45-year-old Phoenix Zen Buddhist priest of Irish descent who abandoned a career as a hospital administrator to teach people to meditate and learn good feng shui.
"Feng shui in most cases doesn't have a lot of force," says Govert. "Obviously, it isn't a lot compared to an atomic bomb." Bad feng shui might simply cause a person to feel annoyed, mildly irritated. But, he says, "we're all on a balance beam," metaphorically speaking, and in this frantic world, why narrow the beam with bad feng shui?
"The more a person lives automatically, the greater the influence of feng shui in their lives," he says.
Govert, a Northwestern University MBA, is widely quoted in newspapers and magazines across the country as a feng shui expert. His fame comes largely because he conducts continuing education classes in the ancient art for the American Society of Interior Designers. He is author of Feng Shui, Art and Harmony of Place, a 1993 self-published book that's sold about 7,000 copies.
Govert figures he's been studying and practicing feng shui for about ten years. He charges $100 an hour for local consultations (a normal house takes about three hours) and says his feng shui-related work grosses him about $36,000 annually.
He also runs a Zen Buddhist temple in north Phoenix, which hasn't been nearly as profitable as the feng shui. He's studied Zen for decades under a master, continues studying today. But most people he's run across in Phoenix don't want to take up Zen Buddhism, he says; there's too much hard work involved. They'd rather spend a weekend swimming with dolphins for their fix of enlightenment, he says.
Sometimes, customers don't like Govert's feng shui counseling. Govert occasionally advises moving out of a bad-energy house rather than spending a fortune for feng shui remodeling. But other times, he says, he can take care of inexplicable things inexpensively. Just last week, for instance, he visited a north Scottsdale house that contained what he calls "entities."
The owner of the house had recently paid to have the place exorcised, he says, but the exorcism didn't quite work. Govert says he had to use his intuitive feng shui talents to find the floor and wall areas where the "entities" were wafting up into the house from the depths of the Earth--perhaps from an underground river running beneath the home.
Once he located the leaky places in the house, he "fixed" the areas by sealing them shut with a ritual.
Govert, who generally wears baggy Dockers and short-sleeved cotton shirts rather than ceremonial Buddhist robes, doesn't always practice the best feng shui himself. For instance, he has a ceiling fan hanging over his bed, even though such placement of a fan is bad feng shui, symbolizing an oppressive weight in one's life. And when it whirs, it scatters qi. Makes it hard to rest sometimes.
The fan was there when he and his wife bought the house several years ago, he says. He'll take it down one of these days, when he finds the time.
"I like to think of feng shui as acupuncture for the environment," drawls Margaret Selby, a 49-year-old former real estate salesperson and interior designer from Hickory, North Carolina, who now is a local feng shui consultant. To remove energy "blockages," Selby might suggest a mirror, a statue, a fountain, a plant. She sells things that aid feng shui: flutes, lead crystals. They are competitively priced, she says, at only $12 apiece.
Selby became interested in feng shui several years ago. She attended a six-day workshop offered by Helen and James Jay, a northern California couple claiming to be disciples of Lin Yun, a controversial feng shui "master" from Berkeley.
The Jays have a Web site for Internet surfers in search of good qi.
Selby herself does not consider her weeklong course of study abbreviated. She simply learned the nuts and bolts from the Jays, she says. Her knowledge comes from seven years of practicing the art.
Selby lectures on feng shui at bookstores and is known around north Scottsdale as the person to call if the qi seems out of whack. She points out corners in homes that must be "beefed up" to ensure wealth, fame, relationships, creativity, support.
Selby charges $130 hourly for consultations; her minimum fee for homes is $180. Businesses pay a minimum of $250, she says. She estimates she consults with 15 different customers weekly.
What is wonderful about feng shui, she says, is that even if a person doesn't believe in it, it works.
So just how well does qi flow in downtown Phoenix?
To get the answers, New Times took Govert and Selby on separate downtown tours to look at certain buildings and offices of the famous and obscure.
Govert tends to dart from one type of feng shui analysis--like landform study--to another--perhaps symbology--without much warning. Selby seems more serious, sticking to an almost-formulaic analysis.
Sometimes, the two agree on the qi vibes.
Often, they observe completely different things.
Occasionally, they contradict each other.
Now and then, their analyses are eerily on point.
Phoenix Public Library, 1221 North Central
Govert: The entrance hallway that opens to the west and to the east moves energy in and out. The square metal sculpture in the entrance attacks those coming in, making males feel especially unwelcome. The pool of water in the entry gives good feng shui, but it is cordoned off from visitors with a metal chain. The bench in front of the water is shaped so that those who sit on it may fall in the water. The entire building is at odds with its purpose, which is scholarship. Much of the library is constructed of metal and glass, instead of wood, the natural environment for housing books. Thus, there will be a greater rate of destruction and loss of books than at the old library. Because of the abundance of metals in the building, science collections will be larger than other collections. The children's area looks out on several trash bins. Symbolically, it tells us what they think of kids. They should shut out the trash area with a little walled garden, so children will feel at ease.
Selby: The entryway is cold and uninviting. The steel beams over the east entry stab at visitors as they come in. The entry is oppressive. You feel you have to walk carefully to keep from falling. The elevators and visible elevator cables in the front lobby give people a sense of insecurity and danger. The water in the entryway is good, but the entire building has a hospital feel to it. The children's area offers no sense of safety. The story-room ceiling is a metal grid, creating a feeling of incompleteness. There is no place in this building where the feng shui makes you feel safe enough to sit down and read a book.
The Arizona House of Representatives, 1700 West Washington
Govert: The stains from roof leaks on the turquoise carpet on the House floor are a sign that money is being wasted, siphoned, embezzled or irresponsibly handled. The House floor itself is of a circular shape that indicates not much is really accomplished here; it's all for show. The floor gives off a sinking, depressing feeling. The drywall edges in remodeled areas are rough, symbolizing the rough edges in the House. Democrats are upset because their offices have no windows. Actually, they have the best offices. Most of the Republican offices have windows that siphon qi out of the rooms, distracting their energies. Representative Laura Knaparek's office is, from a feng shui standpoint, shaped in such a way that promotes aggressive, divisive energies.
Selby: The carpet on the House floor is the color of water, which in feng shui symbolizes money. Perhaps it means that legislators have dreams of prospering. The round room itself has no corners, seems stagnant, energywise. The room does not give you the feeling of being real. Many of the desks are arranged in such a way that legislators' energies stab at each other, causing stomach problems. Because of the placement of desks, Lori Daniels controls relationships in the Legislature. Robert Burns sits in the wealth area. Newcomer Kathi Foster sits in the helping-hands area, where she can look up to others.
Phoenix Newspapers, Inc. Building, New Home of the Arizona Republic, Second Street and Van Buren
Govert: The architecture of the new building will cause the journalism to change. There will be more tolerance for dissenting views. The paper will become more aggressive, faster-paced, less intimate. Feature writers will have a hard time in this building. The new building's doorways will bring in energies that focus on partnerships; editorially, the paper will promote alliances. The use of poisonous plants in landscaping (oleanders) has obvious negative implications.
Selby: They will do okay here, but this will not be a hometown paper anymore. The building is taller than the old Republic building across the street, which fit into the community better. In the past, the paper missed journalistic opportunities. The new building symbolizes power and status. They will have to strive to remain part of the community. The mirrored glass in the building will deflect negative energy.
New Lobby of the Office of Governor J. Fife Symington III, 1700 West Washington
Govert: The most visible, dominant symbol in this office--a kachina dancer whose entire face is covered with a hood that has eye slots--is troubling. The implication is that the governor can look out at a visitor, but the visitor has no idea who the governor is. The circular room is mostly ornamental and spins energies out too quickly. Why is it necessary to separate each visitor's chair with a cactus plant, symbolizing a spiny barrier?
Selby: This lobby has good feng shui, except for the oppressive overhang above the visitors' chairs. The round shape of the room keeps the energy stirring. The color photographs of Arizona scenes on the wall provide good energies. The photographs of water symbolize prosperity. This room will always be very good for a governor.
The Future Home of Bank One Ballpark, Seventh Street and Jefferson
Govert: The irregular grid pattern of streets surrounding the ballpark symbolically means that the ballpark will be well-integrated into the social and economic life of the city. The railroad tracks directly south of the ballpark symbolize how the project was railroaded into the community by promoter Jerry Colangelo. They also indicate that the Diamondbacks will either roar to defeats or victories; there will be few close games. When the ballpark is constructed, the Phoenix Suns' performance should improve, because the ballpark will serve as a guardian, protecting America West Arena from some bad energies.
Selby: The way in which Seventh Street slopes downward on the eastern boundary of the ballpark site may mean that positive energies in the area will always travel downhill. The way in which the streets are configured means symbolically that the ballpark will always be under attack. The Civic Center angles out towards the ballpark like a direct hit, a stab in the stomach. The southwest corner is the best place for the concession stands.
America West Arena, First Street and Jefferson
Govert: The artificially heavy, angular overhang on the southeast corner of the arena attracts negative energy and makes the arena vulnerable. (Govert does not know this is the press entry.) One cannot ignore the symbolism of poisonous plants (oleanders) guarding the parking lot by the gym. (Govert does not know this is where players' wives park.) The main entryway to the arena leads to the suiteholders' doors, which, from a feng shui standpoint, says that suiteholders, not the public, are the most valued at the arena. A triangular shape begins at the suiteholders' doors and points outward, as though suiteholders want to attack people who are resting on the benches in the plaza. There are no outside doorknobs on many of the doors, which symbolically says one has to know someone inside to enter. The most visible element in the main entry is the Bank One Versateller machine, which symbolically signals the importance of money to the arena's owners.
Selby: The artificially heavy, angular overhang on the southeast corner of the arena attracts negative energy. It has a stabbing effect and cuts off the knowledge area of the building. (She does not know this is the press entry.) Energy cannot smoothly flow through this area. The attached covered parking for suiteholders on the west side indicates their willingness to extend helping hands to support the arena. The main entryway should not lead to the suiteholders, but should be on the family area of the building, near the east side, so that people would feel more welcome. The pillars in front of the current main entry block qi going into the building.
Terry Greene's Office, New Times Building, 1201 East Jefferson
Govert: There really isn't much that can be done with this room from a feng shui standpoint. There are too many windows releasing energies from the room. Do you have difficulty writing so near the window? Do you feel scattered? Turn your desk to face the door, cover your windows up to three inches above your head.
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This office is more welcoming to women than to men; the sharp angles of furniture stab at men. Cover your glass door with rice paper. In your wealth corner, put whatever you want or value in life. Put a plant near it. Because you are at the end of the hall, you have no guardian on the other side of your office. Place a guardian symbol in your office to ward off bad energies. Dragons are good, but if you insist on an angel, make sure it's Michael the archangel, not a useless cherub. (Govert does not know that the executive editor of New Times is named Michael Lacey.)
Selby: Are your thoughts scattered when you sit beneath the window? What's happening is energy is draining out the window. Change your desk so it's catty-corner to the door. If you work with your back to the door, you will have worries. Covering your window won't cure your problem. Hang a crystal here to keep the energy flowing properly. Put a bamboo flute over the door so people won't leave negatively. Your left-hand corner is your wealth corner; put something red there. Put something red in your fame corner, something pink, white or red in your relationship corner to enhance your relationships. Put a phone book with a business card behind your door so you will get help from others.
Editor's note: Terry Greene has changed the arrangement of her office and beefed up her wealth corner. But she has been too tired to move her desk, possibly because she sleeps on a bed directly beneath a ceiling fan.