It was just an ordinary Friday morning on the beachfront here - traffic buzzed on Ocean Boulevard, jets echoed overhead, Rollerbladers clicked their wheels on the boardwalk cement.
But in the courtyard of a new $100 million, luxury high-rise apartment, a quiet ceremony was beginning to catch the attention of passersby. Behind a table festooned with fruits, flowers, and roast fowl stood Feng Shui Master Chi Jen Liu in a white Mandarin jacket alongside assistant Jenny Liu in floral silk. As Ms. Liu described the meaning of his gestures in English, Master Liu gnarled his hands into a dozen shapes, slicing the air like a Samurai swordsman without the sword.
"This is not a trendy, quick fix," Ms. Liu said to the gathering of mostly Western press. "Feng Shui is an 8,000-year-old art and science of how to select, create, and live in harmony with the environment."
The event was a ceremonial blessing that came at the end of an arduous, time-consuming analysis performed by the Lius for the owners of The Pacific, 16 stories of elegant condominiums priced from $250,000 to more than $2 million.
For $1,500, the duo submitted a thick document containing suggestions on where to place furniture, appliances, computers, offices - as well as what colors, textures, and materials to use.
Such suggestions were based on the Chinese philosophy (pronounced "fong schway") that tries to understand how to create a comfortable environment in which the user can live and work efficiently. Some theories are literally far out - how energy fields align between earth, stars, and planets - while others are more down to earth, such as how terrestrial features (rocks, trees, waterways) collect or scatter sunlight and wind.
The ceremony and the analysis are the subject of heated debate among scholars and lay people in the US - and even in China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Burma, and Vietnam, where the practice has been long established. But whether Feng Shui is a religion, a science, or a superstition, it makes a significant design contribution for believers such as The Pacific developer James Ratkovich.
"Any builder in the US who refuses to consider the principles or practice of Feng Shui does so at his peril," says Mr. Ratkovich, a leading developer of buildings in Los Angeles.
Billionaire developer Donald Trump has incorporated notions into his buildings, and others who have not say they have regretted it. When Chinese architect I.M. Pei designed the new Bank of China, for instance, he neglected to consult a Feng Shui master and met with widespread opposition to the 70-story office tower in the middle of the city.
Noting that 1 in 4 of his Long Beach tenants are of Asian heritage, Ratkovich says: "We have found the principles and the ceremony to be of very great significance to Asian buyers, and increasingly, non-Asian buyers. It has become an invaluable marketing tool."
Widespread in Hawaii, the practice has recently made a jump in popularity along the West Coast and the East and is even taking hold in the Midwest.
"Builders don't really even have a choice in whether or not to do this," says Scott Sedam, president of Michigan-based Truenorth Development Inc. and an international building consultant. "They are taking into account the sensibilities of the Asian buying public, but also, increasingly, non-Asian American buyers. It used to be considered 'ho, ho,' ... but not any longer."
With all this as a backdrop, I watched as Chi and Liu lit incense, tossed rice, and doused water from the lobby to garage, elevators, and 16 individual floors. Seven of the current tenants have already had their residences "feng shuied" - incorporating the architectural principles, ceremony, or both.
I also listened to both masters describe their architectural and interior-design directions to Pacific owners. They ranged from the esoteric (placing a mirror on the building's west side to divert negative energy from the neighboring high-rise) to the practical (placing furniture against solid walls to keep attention directed inward).
"We took a lot of their suggestions and rejected others," says Ratkovich. "My own feeling is that it can't hurt, and if it helps potential buyers feel better, all to the good."
Because there are several schools of feng shui, several levels of accomplishment by practitioners (similar to the levels of green-, white-, and black- belt karate "experts"), and differing interpreters, it is difficult to pin down an agreeable definition. Part of the problem is in the translation of an ancient Chinese concept known as "qi" - loosely translated as energy, both physical and metaphysical - and its ephemeral quality as a meteorological category that tries to quantify cold, warmth, wind, rain, darkness, and light.
One school or level might suggest different interpretations of the same principle, for instance, meaning that practical suggestions could appear contradictory. And while some Feng Shui analyses seem simple and commonsensical to Western sensibilities, others seem confusing and esoteric.
Although he doesn't understand it that clearly, Paul Malabanan says Feng Shui is still important him. He moved into The Pacific six months ago and paid $200 for a personal evaluation of his sixth-floor apartment. Dr. Malabanan, a Filipino, says, "People always have a problem with something they can't see." The Lius told him to round the corners of his bedroom, which he said was too costly, so he put plants in the corners instead. "It's a compromise," says Malabanan. "You can't take it too seriously, but you do what you can."