Malaysian Turns Feng Shui Into String of Bestsellers

The Wall Street Journal,
9th July 1999
By Chen May Yee

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Take a Malaysian ex-banker with a Harvard MBA.

Immerse in ancient Chinese mysticism. Place strategically across the table from big Western publishers. Wait for abundant good fortune. It's been a winning formula for Lillian Too, whose 27 titles on the 4,000-year-old practice of feng shui are published in 15 languages. The latest book recently hit No. 1 on the Sunday Times of London's nonfiction bestseller list. She has sold more than one million books since 1997, her main publisher says.

The 53-year-old Ms. Too was well known in Malaysia and Hong Kong in the 1980s as one of Asia's few women corporate high-fliers. However, she left her banking career in Hong Kong in 1990 to return to Malaysia and try to reunite her splintering family.

Now she's using her head for business and knack for self-promotion to build herself a feng shui empire: Aside from being a best-selling author, she's a regular on the lecture circuit, and has spun out a line of jewelry. She just launched a feng shui tour package and is talking about making a video and perhaps hosting a TV show. Demystifying the Discipline Feng shui, which literally means "wind and water," is a kind of architectural and interior-design guide to promote health, wealth and happiness.

Feng shui masters advise clients to move a door here, block up a window there, or rearrange furniture based on complicated calculations and formulas aimed at harnessing the earth's good energy and deflecting the bad. Many people will call in the feng shui man when business is bad, or before building a new house.

What Ms. Too has done is cull the knowledge of practitioners and turn it into brightly illustrated books that demystify the discipline and offer easy-to-follow practical advice. In "Feng Shui for Love," she warns readers to banish from the bedroom all mirrors. The reflections, she says, signify outside interference and promote infidelity. In "Feng Shui for Children," she reveals how to position a child's desk for better grades at school. Hang a wind chime above a cash register, she exhorts in "Feng Shui for Wealth"; its tinkling will draw positive energy.

Her books, written in English, were a dramatic shift from the esoteric Chinese texts that already existed. Her first fans were overseas Chinese, many of whom don't read and write Chinese but were eager learn about Chinese traditions. Ms. Too herself is Chinese-Malaysian. For the budget-minded, her books were an affordable option to costly consultations by traditional feng shui masters.

The timing of her books, the first of which appeared in 1995, was also fortuitous. The return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 put a spotlight on the region. In addition, Ms. Too tapped into a world-wide revival of interest in so-called Mind, Body and Spirit literature, also known as New Age writing, often attributed to the advent of the new millennium. "At the moment, it's a very popular area," says David Alexander, chief executive of Element Books Ltd., a U.K. publisher that specializes in the genre. Annual sales of Element's books, which include titles on Chinese acupuncture and popular psychology, have grown to more than 20 million pounds ($31.2 million or 30.47 million euros) from less than 1 million pounds 10 years ago, Mr. Alexander says. Ms. Too is one of Element's top-selling authors, he adds.

Possible 'Dangerous' Effects

But not everyone is a fan. "The intentions of such writers are very good," says Master Koh Pu Lin, a well-known feng shui consultant in Malaysia and Singapore. But Master Koh, who charges from 838 ringgit ($221) for an apartment consultation, or 12,000 ringgit for a house, warns that feng shui "is not a do-it-yourself business." A botched interpretation could bring on "dangerous" effects.

Ms. Too says she quit the high-stress life of banking -- she was head of Dao Heng Bank in Hong Kong -- to concentrate on her family. "I nearly had a nervous breakdown," she remembers. "My marriage was shot to bits. The price was too high." She spent a few years as a full-time mother to her adolescent daughter, then began looking around for something to fill her time.

Gathering together notebooks she had kept from her personal use of feng shui through the years, she wrote her first book in 1995, ignoring friends' advice that she should write books on banking or management instead. A Malaysian publisher offered her a contract that would have effectively meant signing away all future rights. She refused, set up her own publishing firm, Konsep Lagenda, and put out her first book, "Feng Shui." It contained, she remembers, "153 typos in it, and the sketches were amateurish." She had to beg local bookstores to stock her books on consignment.

Then she attracted the attention of Element, which turned her writing into a glossy coffee-table book "The Complete Illustrated Guide to Feng Shui." It was filled with practical advice and colorful pictures that depicted contemporary home settings. A photograph of Britain's Prince Charles and Princess Diana accompanied the section on "Health, Romance and Marriage" and the subsection "What to do when things go wrong." It has sold more than 530,000 copies since 1997.

These days, her list of publishers includes big names such as Ballantine Publishing of the U.S., along with lesser-known ones from countries such as Greece, Slovenia and Spain. She has reconciled with her husband, a retired engineer. These days, she says, he helps proofread her books. "When I wrote my first book, my friends in the corporate world laughed at me," she says. "Now they don't laugh any more."
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