Feng Shui Diva: Lillian Too reaches for supernova

The Edge,
The Week of November 26th 2001
By Amir Muhammad

After hitting her peaks as a world best-selling author, Lillian Too is limbering up her vocal chords for superstardom of the Tina Turner kind. Amir Muhamad meets the divinely industrious one.

Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives,but Lillian Too shows that Malaysian can be luckier.She was the first Malaysian woman to head a public-listed company (Hong Leong Credit in 1982) and the first Asian woman to be the CEO of a bank (Grindlays Dao Heng in Hong Kong). She then took over a department store (Hong Kong's Dragon Seed) and made it profitable before cashing out to become a full-time mother. Instead of wasting away in tai tai leisure after ditching the corporate life,she started a new career as the world's best selling writer on feng shui,the Chinese geomancy that to its detractors is a type of New Age sugar water but to its legion of adherents a sure way to make everything better.

She has the pointed enunciation of someone used to giving public talks and the rapid-fire delivery of a veteran interviewee. A tour of her living room can inspire nothing more than a few quick interjections of "Oh, I see". She would point and say: "This is the North-west corner,which also stands for the patriarch and the leader,and it's also diagonal to the door,so it's called the lucky spot,and you can energise this with money if you want. For me, money is not as important as my spiritual growth, so I put my Buddha statues here. But since I want some commercial success, I also have a revolving crystal globe,so that my books will go around the world.These are the Buddha statues that I make; it's my hobby. This is not feng shui,it's part of my lifestyle. This is a wealth tree made from cornelian; like all semi-precious stones it's very powerful. I put it here as an offering to Buddha."

She repeatedly states that she's retired and mellow,but proves to be a whirlwind of positive energy. She's got 50 books, a boutique,an online store ( and her own line of jewellery. Her latest project is the double CD Lillian Too's Feng Shui (Universal),now in stores, in which she chattily informs you about the Pa Kua,the Magic Mirror and the Three-Legged Toad,while dispensing simple house-hold hints like "If there is a toilet in the Southwest, marriage luck and prospects are regularly flushed down the toilet". When someone this successful starts giving out tips like that,you can bet your bottom ingot that people will start tuning in.

Amir: Did you utilise feng shui in your previous incarnation as a banker?

I have actively used it for about 30 years.In my twenties I didn't take it that seriously,but it made a huge impression on me because of a personal experience. My husband and I were trying desperately to have a baby. The years flew by and we didn't succeed.Then,a friend of mine came to my house and said,"Of course you can't have a baby. Look at this huge tree in front!"

A poison arrow!

Right. So when we built our new house,we got advice.And within four months of moving in, I became pregnant and Jennifer was born,10 years after we got married. After that,I used it to activate my career and wah! It worked so well. Then I used it to make a bit of money and wah! It worked so well again. From then on, I started to investigate feng shui and discovered that the source of feng shui knowledge is the I-Ching,the Taoist Book of Changes.

Which was popular in the West in the 1960s,so maybe the interest in feng shui is cyclical.

I looked at the research done by Professor Needham of Cambridge, a China scholar.There was nothing on feng shui directly but there was so much else, so when I studied it and had people tell me the superstitions that I grew up with,everything sort of fell into place.I was then posted to Hong Kong. If you're a banker,everyone is your friend and doors open for you.So I made friends with Chinese bankers who introduced me to old-style feng shui and Taoist masters who shared their knowledge with me.That's when my knowledge improved. I could actually switch it on or off,like magic.

Was it easy to retire from the corporate world?

It was one of the most difficult things to do. I lost my whole support system-my staff,my assistants.I also lost some people whom I thought were friends,but who obviously were not. I had tons of offers but I felt I really had to return to Malaysia and become a full-time mother.You can always get back your career but once your child grows up,she's gone. My friends said, "You can't just leave," and I said, "Watch me." So it was a good decision. Then I started to write.

Didn't you initially want to write fiction?

I still do! There's this fiction inside me waiting to come out! I really want to write a blockbuster. I'm filled with admiration for J K Rowling of the Harry Potter books,which are brilliant. There are many subjects I want to write about,but I don't want to write a book that's just commercial. I want to write a book that's me. So I'm hoping to use my feng shui to energise me to enable me to do this! I also wanted to be a singer.Universal approached me for this CD and I told the MD, "I'll say yes to you if you just allow me to sing! If Tina Turner can do it,so can I !" Well, they didn't allow me to sing but they did put in music!

Will the CD be marketed everywhere?

The whole world.I'm very lucky.

Is it for people who are too lazy to read?

Yes.You'd be surprised.People like to have things simplified for them.And you can only simplify a subject if you know it very well.I've developed a style to cater to this market, and it seems to have worked.I've sold millions of books.

But your first few books were published on a more,uh,modest.

They were self-published.

Did nobody want the books?

I approached a few London publishers and they made all kinds of rude remarks about my writing!

Oh no! Like what?

In 1995 they said,"We'll have to hire a writer to rewrite what you have done." And I'd have to pay for the writer. I said,"You don't understand. I'm not doing this for vanity.It's okay if you don't want the book, but you don't have to say those things to me, as I happen to be very proud of my English!"

So when did the rise begin?

A publishing house discovered me and came out with The Complete Illustrated Guide to Feng Shui,which created a publishing sensation. It still holds the record for the highest sales for a colour hardcover book. A coffee-table book that sells 25,000 copies will be considered a success,but mine sold 600,000.That led to a proliferation because everyone wanted feng shui books. Publishers flew to Malaysia to sign me up.Every bookshop has a shelf on feng shui now. Today, I'm published by Random House and Harper Collins,two of the biggest publishers in the world.

Do you think that the interest in feng shui also had a geopolitical underpinning in that the world was turning to China as an emerging market and -

Yes. The 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China created so much hype that people became curious about all things Chinese.It was as if it was fated. Now I have a worldwide network of readers. I am translated into so many languages,but Bahasa Malaysia is not one of them. I don't know why.They translate me in Indonesia.

Maybe it's because the people who would more likely read the books in Malaysia would read them in English anyway.

That's probably right.I think most English-speaking households in Malaysia have at least one of my books.We have a few English newspapers and I think someone should start a good English TV channel.

The perception is that there are fewer advertisers for local English shows.

If I did a show, I could get all the property developers to come in as sponsors, and they are among the biggest advertisers.

You should do it. You can be like Oprah!

Yes, except I will provide solutions.Oprah Winfrey makes a fortune by discussing people's problems - "Too fat? Too thin? Is your man beating you up? Talk about it, let it all out !"- but there are no solutions. I could do it,but then it takes a lot of effort.Oprah makes it look very easy because she's so good at what she does.People think it's easy for me to write books as well,but I tell you, it isn't!

You have said that feng shui is not a religion.

It's not like meditation, which goes into the realm of spirituality. Feng shui nurtures the body but at a superficial level, and yet if you didn't have this superficial level of good body health and money in the bank, how can you engage your upper chakra, your spirituality? You'll be too busy worrying about where your next meal is coming from. Feng shui only accounts for one-third of your luck.It's also up to you to make use of the opportunities that come your way.But if feng shui can give you the extra competitive edge,why not?

The first experience I had with feng shui was a bad one.

Oh ?

It was at a place I used to work for.The manager spent a lot on a black goldfish to be placed with nine gold ones,but he wasn't paying his staff on time,so we all felt like poisoning the fish.The morale was not good.Plus,the iconography around the office was very Chinese even though it wasn't a Chinese company.

I always encourage people to use symbols from their own culture. If you go into a Muslim house,it would be so funny to see Chinese gods in there.

But Islam doesn't trade in iconography anyway,so -

I like the minarets, they are beautiful.And if I were a Muslim I would hang Quranic verses in the house.If a Christian asks me who their wealth god is, I would say "Santa Claus".

I don't think Santa Claus was a really Christian thing.

Well, them, whoever! In Hinduism, it would be lakshmi or Ganesh. Once you start putting holy objects in your house, it's not a question of praying for money, but you're saying that you will use your wealth to help others.

Too: There are raging controversies among different schools and masters of feng shui in America and Europe,but I try to rise above that. In my books, I refuse to give opinions on other people.Nobody has a monopoly on knowledge. I also point out that all the evidence I have is anecdotal. I didn't collect scientific data to show what percentage of people didn't get sick because they had a wind chime.I don't want to overplay the importance of feng shui but it's something good in my culture that people can share.I think it's so nice to have something that can make your life happier and easier.

Amir : Are there practitioners who say that you are being too populist?

Of course. Some people say, "Lillian Too's feng shui is pop feng shui." I say, "What's wrong with pop feng shui if it works? They are the non-English speaking people from the old school and I respect them because what I do must seem very commercial. But if you don't package in this way,how are you going to reach out to young people? Life is complicated enough.I don't take criticism personally. I'm also a bit mellow in my old age.When I was young, I would have been the first to come to a very active and aggressive defence,but now I really don't care.Ninety-nine per cent of the mail I get is positive. I get about 200 to 300 e-mails a day.

Isn't it also possible to be successful in life even if you surround yourself with negative symbols- you know,of destruction,of violence,the colour black.It forms the whole discursive terrain of punk,of metal,of the Marquis de Sade,and so on, this resistance to the tyrannies of nature and sentimentality.What do you say about that?

I have not heard metallic music.The only thing I know is what I read of Marilyn Manson and I am quite appalled at what I read,which may not be fair to him. Having said that,I am averse to violent movies. I think a lot of the terrorism today has to do with those movies. It's a form of karma. This has nothing to do with feng shui or religion,this is just my personal view.Some movies make violence look cool and that is so,so wrong. If there's a violent scene on TV, I will turn it off. This is where as a parent I advocate a certain degree of censorship.I would prefer a fluff movie like Legally Blonde,which is clean,wholesome fun.

Okay. You've written 50 books.How long does it take to write one? And how do you avoid too much overlapping?

It takes about a month.Some basic fundamentals like yin and yang overlap,but feng shui as a subject has great depth and applicability, so I can write separate books on love,wealth, networking,on landscape,interiors,exteriors and so on.

What if people say that what is now considered feng shui is simply common sense and interior design? Like,"Place your door here so that customers can see it." There are consultants who charge a lot of money for advice like that.

A lot of feng shui is common sense. And as for consultants, it's up to the company to decide how much it wants to pay. In a free market, prices find their own level. But since I have a degree of influence, I prefer not to give comments on specific consultants because I might be misunderstood. Like any branch of esoterica, feng shui has its share of charlatans because that's how the world is.

What are your next books going to be about?

Since enough has come out on feng shui,I am now more interested in writing something practical rather than theoretical,maybe follow the Harvard case-study style that I know. But personally I'm more interested in spirituality. The world now is so full of hatred,you can feel it in the air,so I want to see what I can do in that area.

You have a lama?

Yes, I'm a follower of Tibetan Buddhism and my teacher,Lama Zopa Rinpoche,personifies all the virtues that I admire. His humility is awesome. He's totally non-judgemental and unconditional in his sense of compassion to people.

When did you start seeing him?

In 1997. It coincided with my rise as a feng shui personality worldwide. I think it's due to his great blessing that I've become so popular.

Since you want to branch out into other types of writing,would you write a book about your experiences in the corporate scene here?

Maybe. Dancing with the Tycoon.

Sleeping with the Tycoon. Even better !

But a book like that might hurt people,which is not my intention. Readers will also point fingers to guess who the characters are. If I write a novel, it will be about a spiritual journey.

Speaking of which ,have you been to Putrajaya?

I have.

Aren't the buildings there terrible?

It's really bad feng shui. They made some very horrendous mistakes. I was appalled by this really straight road that was aimed at Putrajaya. It's bad because the feng shui of our leaders affects the feng shui of our good country.But having said that,Malaysia has good feng shui because of our mountain range,which is the dragon. We have good spine.

Do you do consulting work?

I am asked on a daily basis and on a daily basis I say no. I am too busy, and my time is very expensive,so to make things easy I don't do it.

Not even for corporations?

That's different. I take a few but on a very low-key basis.I never allow my name to be used publicly and I never use their buildings as examples in my books. I take maybe six or seven clients a year. I don't necessarily ask to be paid in cash. I can be paid in many other ways.

At what stage would you come in?

Usually when they are about to purchase land or build something. In Hollywood I am consulted when people want to buy property.The last one I did, I advised on a house that was purchased by a couple for US$15 million. That was satisfying because after they moved in, wonderful things happened to them.

What countries do you go to promote your books?

All over,you name it ! I just came back from Shanghai.You have to go there. There is no recession in China.I can't believe how much has been achieved there.

Do you give many talks in Malaysia?

If it's a charitable organization and I have the time, I usually speak for free.I prefer it when there's a higher motive.But most of the time I am very low profile.My socialite days are over.But I like singing and like to jam.

What do you sing?

The Carpenters, Bette Midler and Chris de Burgh who is my all-time favourite. I adore the Bee Gees. I told Universal : "Get the Bee Gees for me! I want to collaborate!" I'm very into music. My one regret is that when I was growing up in Penang,we were very poor so I couldn't afford piano lessons.

How did this CD come about?

The senior people at Universal in Hong Kong and London are my readers and were interested in doing something with me. So the local MD came to see me last year. If it were just me narrating, it would be boring, which is why the music was important. I wanted it to be a class production and to convey my enthusiasm. It worked really well because technology now can make anyone sound sexy

How did you know what material to use for the CD ?

We captured the things that would be of concern to people, like office politics, how to jazz up your love life, how to energise every corner of your home. Really specific things you can do, without going into the philosophy. I think it will sell very well over Christmas.

The packaging is very Christmassy to begin with.

I hope so,because my ambitions to be a singer hinge on this!

Gadfly,media rogue and free agent Amir Muhammad is currently working on his second movie.
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