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Feng Shui masters milking Hong Kong
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - The ancient Chinese practice of feng shui - fortune-telling based on a combination of earthly and astrological divinations - has become so abused in this city that a list of those perpetrating the top 10 scams in geomancy is surely just around the corner.
Topping the chart would be Tony Chan Chun-chuen, who raked in US$93 million as the self-professed lover and feng-shui advisor to Asia's richest woman, Nina Wang Kung Yu-sum, the legendary "chairlady" of Hong Kong property giant Chinachem, before she died of cancer in 2007.
But it seems lesser but still substantial feng-shui fraud is occurring on a daily basis in Hong Kong, often aided and abetted by the government. Prompted by revelations in the South China
Morning Post, city officials have admitted to spending at least HK$72 million (US$9.2 million) over the past 10 years on questionable construction projects and cleansing rituals recommended by geomancers.
The funds are given as compensation for cleansing new additions to Hong Kong's infrastructure - rail lines, roads, tunnels, bridges and more - deemed to have disrupted the chi, or energy, of a landscape. Even telephone lines have met with the disapproval of feng-shui practitioners, but these modern-day soothsayers may be more interested in their own financial gain than in restoring the proper chi to the allegedly tainted site.
Behind these suspect geomancers stand construction companies and village chiefs in Hong Kong's New Territories who also reap profits from claims that, by their very nature, are impossible to prove or disprove.
A typical scam goes like this: A proposed new road or rail line extension cuts through a village. Village leaders feign feng-shui outrage about displaced chi while at the same time jumping gleefully on this golden opportunity to enrich themselves. A cleansing (tun fu) ritual, they declare, must be performed, and the bill for such a service, sent directly to the Hong Kong government, can add up to hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong dollars. By prior agreement, the performer of the ritual then splits his take with those who have hired him.
Meanwhile, there is no law forbidding feng-shui claimants from bidding for, and winning, any corrective, chi-restoring construction projects associated with the claim. And, if those winning bids happened to be made by companies owned by village chiefs or their relatives, all the better.
Compensation for feng-shui disruptions to the environment goes back at least 50 years in Hong Kong. At that time, colonial British administrators doled out cash to geomancers as a nod to Chinese culture and as a way of lessening resistance to unpopular projects. The practice has continued unabated since the handover to Chinese rule 13 years ago and, despite the government's recent admission, no one really knows how much public money has been poured into dubious feng-shui claims, because official record-keeping has been spotty at best.
Astonishingly, the chief executive of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation, which is owned by the Hong Kong government and has freely forked out compensatory feng-shui cash to help gain acceptance of controversial extensions to its network, makes no apologies for his lack of records.
"At the end of any project - once the procedures are completed, payments made and contracts cleaned up - we no longer need the records," James Blake told the Post. "We have no immediate access to any records. They are no longer financial records. We don't need them. They are properly disposed of."
With that kind of attitude permeating the government bureaucracy, it is safe to say that the HK$72 million which officials admit to dishing out for feng-shui claims is a gross underestimate. It may never be known exactly how many millions of dollars geomancers, along with their puppeteers in the New Territories, have managed to pocket over the years, thanks to the government's generosity. Collectively, however, it is almost certain that they have taken more from Hong Kong's coffers than Chan ever did from the bank account of Asia's richest woman.
The feng-shui case that has most recently sparked public outrage involves the chief of Kap Lung Village, Tsang Hin-keung. In compensation for tunneling that is planned for a 26-kilometer express rail link connecting Hong Kong with the mainland city of Guangzhou, Tsang, claiming feng-shui damage, filed a request for government funding to widen a village footbridge located near the project to accommodate vehicular traffic.
That the footbridge was built to serve pedestrians in a country park intended to be a rare quiet spot of nature in bustling Hong Kong adds an extra dash of arrogance to the request. As it turns out, Tsang, who is also chairman of the influential Shap Pat Heung Rural Committee, owns 14 of 40 lots in the village. The widened bridge will no doubt enhance the value of those lots and be a great help in transporting materials to develop them.
Tsang's claim was based on the argument that the widened bridge would redirect the "dragon energy" displaced by the rail construction back to the village. Incredibly, it was approved by the Lands Department. But outrage over that approval sparked the formation of a group of activists calling themselves the League of Rural Government Collusion Monitoring and would eventually lead to the investigative attention of the Post, the city's leading English-language newspaper. Now members of the Legislative Council (Legco), Hong Kong's mini-parliament, are vowing to take up the Kap Lung case and the corrupt system that it represents.
But don't count on any of this noise to result in real change - that is, not until the special status granted to indigenous residents of the New Territories also changes, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Under the British, indigenous residents of the New Territories and their ancestors were granted special rights to preserve their traditional customs and patrilineal property rights. After the handover, that special status was maintained, continuing the feng-shui chaos and property-zoning nightmares in an otherwise sensible, well-ordered international financial hub.
The ultimate embodiment of the entrenched interests and enduring problems in the New Territories is Lau Wong-fat, 74, long-standing chairman of the Heung Yee Kuk, the powerful government advisory body that represents indigenous villagers. Lau is also a member of Legco and the elite Executive Council that serves as a de facto cabinet to Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. Since September, Lau, who is also a property baron in the New Territories, has been under assault in the media for his failure to declare a series of recent property transactions from which he could have benefited by his privileged position on the Executive Council.
What appears to be a clear case of conflict of interest, however, has left the chief executive , mindful of New Territories politics, unmoved. Lau remains in his cabinet and has confidently announced his plans to seek re-election, yet again, as his village's representative. Given his sway, he will no doubt win.
Meanwhile, the shady construction deals and bogus feng-shui rituals will continue, with taxpayers footing the bill.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com