East vs. West: feng shui face-off in Toronto suburb

Some Chinese residents in this growing Toronto suburb aren't happy about what may go up in their neighborhood: the town's first mosque.

They're not hostile to Muslims, or to new development. It's a question of "negative energy."

Their concerns seem to be related to the practice of feng shui - using astrology and numerology to determine the best site for a building in order to optimize the flow of positive chi, or energy.

But Markham Town Councilor Tony Wong prefers "cultural sensitivities." "A lot of Chinese do not subscribe to feng shui - especially overseas Chinese. I'm not a subscriber myself."

The case raises some issues we may hear more about as East continues to meet West in the big cities of North America: Can "cultural sensitivities" be invoked to keep a mosque out of a largely Chinese neighborhood? And can feng shui be taken into account in municipal planning decisions?

The short answer, so far, is no.

But officials seem to be finding some accommodation to public concern over the siting of houses of worship and funeral homes - and to the desire to renumber houses to avoid the number "4," which, in Chinese, is a homonym for the word death.

Sensitivity and land-use

"It's real to the people here," says David Collinson, director of planning in Richmond Hill, next door to Markham. "You can be sensitive to an extent." But still, he stresses, planning decisions have to be based on traditional land-use criteria.

"Nobody has the answers for people who have fears," says Khalid Usman, the Markham town councilor in whose district the mosque site is located. "You can't have superstitions run your life. Religion is one thing, but superstition - there's no end to it."

And even among feng shui adherents, no great unity reigns. Feng shui master Ivan Yip of Richmond Hill estimates that he is one of 60,000 in North America. What some of them are doing is to feng shui, he says, as chop suey is to fine Chinese cuisine.

Many feng shui masters would recommend against living near a house of worship, because such buildings are often empty and sometimes full of "unbalanced energies." But opponents of the Markham mosque had two specific concerns, Wong says.

The first was that they wanted a smaller minaret. Ralph Aselin, another town councilor, says that the issue there was infringement of the neighbors' privacy. Rather than a spire-like structure, the minaret is to be a "manned tower," as he puts it, from which "you [could] basically see into the backyard of every house for at least a block away."

As a "goodwill gesture" the Islamic Society of Markham reduced the height of the minaret from 110 feet to 80 feet.

The second concern was the "cold room" to be built to hold bodies for up to a few hours before a funeral service. The facility would not be a morgue, says Mansoor Aziz, spokesman for the Islamic Society.

But Mr. Aselin says that the question of the exact purpose of the room "was never answered sufficiently" at the July 6 town council meeting. The town council approved the site map, 11 to 2. Wong and Aselin voted no.

The neighbors are trying to consider whether to appeal the council's decision to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). They refused numerous Monitor requests for a meeting. "I told them that as far as the town is concerned, the file is closed," Wong says.

Chinese community

Only in the last several years has Markham's Chinese population shot up to about 20,000, 20 percent of a total now pushing 200,000, says Wong. Many of these newcomers - here as elsewhere in Canada - are from Hong Kong, a feng shui stronghold.

The endlessly sprawling new subdivisions, in their suburban sameness, give few hints of the rich ethnic mix of their inhabitants. Only the houses of worship do that: the Chinese Christian church here, the Sikh temple there.

The mosque controversy, which Wong calls "a very good case study," comes about a year after another issue involving "cultural sensitivities": A zoning variance was sought to permit a funeral home on one of Markham's main streets. The case ended up before the OMB.

Differing cultural views

The issue, the board noted in its March 1998 decision, was "whether the proposed planning applications should be refused on the basis that persons of Chinese origin, including business owners and tenants, employees and residents, harbor a profound cultural and religious aversion to physical proximity to funeral homes."

The board answered its own question in the negative, and allowed the funeral home.

Elizabeth Howson, a planning consultant with Macaulay Shiomi Howson in Toronto, sees this as one of "a very strong string of cases" in which the OMB has shown its intention to stick with traditional land-use planning principles.

But the town engaged her to study the siting of funeral homes. "Restrictions may sometimes be made to preserve social values [but] they must be broadly based societal values and applied in a consistent fashion," she states, in her recently released report. No feng shui for the planning department, in other words.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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