cowboys of the dragon

As feng-shui fever sweeps Britain, you're nobody if you haven't had your `chi' redirected. But pounds 150-an-hour to be told where to stick your wind-chimes? And watch out, there are charlatans about, says Matthew Sweet
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Ruth, 26, an au pair working for a successful professional couple in a smart London suburb, would have felt pretty daft taking this before an industrial tribunal: "My employers had a huge row on the same day that I dumped a great big stereo down in their Relationship Corner. It was blocking the view of some photographs of them together as a couple. That's really bad feng-shui." Ruth was forced to admit that her rash act had produced domestic discord by disrupting the passage of positive energy - chi - through the living room, negating the beneficial effects of the goldfish and the healing crystals. In the suburbs, they take these things very seriously.

Feng-Shui is the ancient Chinese art of rearranging your house plants to make scads of money and improve your love life. Chinese peasants have been following its dictums for 5,000 years, and it must be said, have not achieved world-wide fame for their surfeits of sex and cash. However, now this brand of spatial acupuncture has been examined by Richard and Judy, and spawned a clutch of coffee table books, susceptible British metropolitans are desperate to encourage the household dragon to heavy- breathe good luck along their dadoes.

Carrie, a South London businesswoman, has benefited from such cosmic spring-cleaning: "It was quite expensive, but it's worked out a bit of a bargain. Since we had the flat done our business has taken a turn for the better." It's also brought a less dramatic bonus: "My husband had this horrible spiky plant that I'd been attempting to kill for months by pouring coffee and tea dregs into its pot. The feng-shui man told us to get rid of it, and that's certainly improved my lifestyle, cutting [negative] chi or no cutting chi".

Feng-shui's energetic incursion into popular culture hasn't been limited to the sofas of daytime TV. Celebrity enthusiasts include Richard Branson and the Duchess of York (but would you take tips on interiors from someone who sleeps with a cushion embroidered with the words, "Anyone can be a mother ... it takes someone special to be a mummy"?). In Philip Kerr's best- selling thriller, Gridiron, architects reject the advice of their feng- shui consultant and find that their building has developed a malignant intelligence bent on destroying its occupants. As if that wasn't bad enough, the novel also contains the English novel's first feng-shui sex scene: "`Did the dragon tell you I was coming?' he grinned ... `Of course,' she said, lying back on the bed. `The dragon tells me everything'". Cosmopolitan has offered its readers 10 ways to feng-shui their bedrooms for better sex. Presumably, being watched from your Relationship Corner by your lucky goldfish adds an extra frisson of excitement.

And for anyone who can tidy up with a measure of mystical authority, there's money to be made. In Britain, feng-shui geomancers routinely charge pounds 150-an-hour to advise their clients on how to reposition their home furnishings, and the average three bedroomed house demands between two and five hours of consultation. What you get for your money (which must be handed over in cash in an auspicious red envelope) is an astrological assessment and a list of home improvements that will effect the optimum flow of good chi. Sawing sharp edges off desks, throwing out sickly begonias and installing fish tanks are the sort of alterations that the client can expect to make. If, horror of horrors, you have a toilet installed in your Money Corner, you can compensate with mirrors and a flourishing plant. Keeping the toilet lid down will minimise the escape of chi down the sewage pipes.

For business customers, the recommendations of the geomancer can have more far-reaching consequences than switching the positions of the pouffe and the lava lamp. In Hong Kong, where matters of feng-shui are a corporate priority, the bills can be monstrous: tens of thousands were spent on reconfiguring the entire escalator structure in Sir Norman Foster's Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, so as to keep the resident dragon happy. Elsewhere on the colony, a legal dispute blew up between the Bank of China and the neighbours of its new HQ: its angular shape is, apparently, a beacon of malignant energy. Feng-shui is also being used as a political weapon in the transfer of power from the British to the Chinese. The island's new chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, has made disparaging noises about the auspiciousness of the domestic arrangements in Government House, which for the past four years has been happy home to Chris and Lavender Patten. And it's not just in Hong Kong - property prices in Vancouver can vary tremendously depending on the status feng-shui accords certain topographical features.

The London-based Feng-Shui Network exists to disseminate knowledge of the technique and promote its good practice in the UK. As there is no registering body for geomancers, the Network is the nearest that the mystic industry has to a regulator. The organisation keeps a list of recommended experts, and can put you in touch with feng-shui hotshots, macrobioticians, acupuncturists and "people who go out and douse for geopathic stress". It's also in the process of setting up a three-year course in geomancy that will help to legitimise the practice for the benefit of both clients and practitioners.

In the United States, this move towards officialisation is well under way. Two Californian universities offer courses in feng-shui, overseen by Master Larry Sang, founder of the American Feng-Shui Institute. Grinning, tuxedo-clad from his Internet Homepage, he asserts himself as the follower of "a legitimate scientific discipline", but adds a warning that "feng- shui charlatans continue to shroud their ignorance in clouds of mystery and ritual". But how do you spot a charlatan? How can the consumer know that the ba-gua is being tended by a paid-up member of the Tantric Black Sect, or being shanghaied by some poorly-trained cowboy practitioner who'll charge you pounds 150 to tell you where to stick your wind-chimes? And if Bernard Manning can register as a race relations counsellor (as the BBC's Watchdog consumer affairs programme proved recently), then there's little to stop you or me advertising a feng-shui service in the window of the post office and watching the cash of the gullible drop on to the doormat.

The Feng-Shui Network offers this advice: "Ask them where they trained. Ask about their background - but it's really a matter of intuition. You've got to look within before inviting someone into your home." A rather less recondite method might be to ring the Network and order one of their information packs. And you're probably in safe hands, as their employees practice what they preach: "I had a feng-shui consultant come into my flat four years ago, and my boyfriend and I split up a week later." Oh dear. Perhaps it was the same practitioner who feng-shui'd Highgrove for the Prince and Princess of Wales. There's a happy ending: "He told me where the best place was to put my meditation stool, and I then knew what I had to do. I'm now in a very supportive and loving relationship and my Relationship Corner is lovely. I have a Chagall picture of a couple and one from The Lion King. It's of Simba and his mate kissing. I love that film".

For Ruth's employers, the discovery of pounds 4,000 in a forgotten bank account followed their implementation of the geomancer's recommendations. Fortunately for their au pair, this hasn't turned their fetish into a domestic tyranny. "You shouldn't take it too far," warns Ruth. "It's no fun to live in a place if you walk in and can't hear yourself speak for wind chimes." One of their neighbours has a less credulous attitude: "The woman over the road said she thinks that a feng-shui program should go on the government budget, so that people can go round hospitals sprinkling sea water and rose petals and clapping in the corners to dissipate the bad energy." Pain and suffering collects in the walls, apparently. "It might cheer people up, I suppose," reflects Ruth. "I'd laugh if I was sitting in bed and someone came round the place doing all that."

8 Feng-Shui Network: 0171 935 8935.

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