Xiao Shun Chen – Wind, Water and Whisky

Xiao Shun Chen Portrait

I am 陈孝顺(Xiao Shun Chen), a Feng Shui practitioner involved with the Nine Rivers Distillery project. It might seem a little unusual for a Feng Shui practitioner to invest in a whisky company, but I imagine my story is not all that different from others. At a recent dinner with both Chinese and foreign friends, they asked for my story and so here it is.  

I had a relative who, before he lost his sight, worked as a Feng Shui Master. As a kid, I was fascinated by how seriously everyone took his words.  We would go for walks together, and he would tell me little bits and pieces of advice for choosing good locations for buildings.  I enjoyed these walks because I got to ask questions about the advice he was giving others. Once he understood my interest was deeper than mild curiosity, he introduced me to a Feng Shui teacher.

Xiao Shun Chen - using a feng shui compass
This was me checking out the Feng Shui for the chosen site in Da Chi on my first visit.

Helping people was a natural calling. To me, Feng Shui is best described as a “metaphysical philosophy.” Essentially, natural elements need to be balanced to focus positive energies. You may have heard of this being called “qi.” Feng Shui’s aim is to harness the best use and flow of qi from the environment through architecture and the layout of buildings and environments.

My clients in my hometown frequently expressed pleasure and delight at positive changes in their lives when they had finished construction or renovations based on my guidance.

I was asked many times to give consults to clients who had either moved to Hong Kong or had recommended me. Once I started making trips to Hong Kong, my client list was growing, and soon something completely unexpected happened: a Westerner was asking to engage my services. I wasn’t sure what to expect, I think a part of me still didn’t expect any foreigner to really take Feng Shui seriously.

These are the original site plans for the chosen site in Da Chi.

Well, surprise! This foreign customer has been following my advice for more than a decade. I’ve advised him when he has setup new offices or warehouses across China and also everywhere he has lived.  It’s been an interesting collaboration and while I was initially skeptical about his interest in my beliefs, I now consider him to be a genuine and authentic believer in Feng Shui. Westerners know him as Jay, but I call him 阿杰 (A Jie) as is the fashion in my hometown.

A Jie messaged me a few years ago and asked me if I’d to come out to visit Fujian to assess the Feng Shui of some sites. To me, it was like asking a child if they want to visit a chocolate factory! Fujian is rich in history, culture and of course Feng Shui. Western Fujian is quite similar to my own homelands. I come from Lian An, a village on the south-west side of what we now call Haifeng County, in an area we all call Chaoshan.  While we speak a different dialect of Chinese, we have similar food and a similar history over hundreds of years.  The popularity of Feng Shui in both Chaoshan culture and the Hakka culture is something that I believe unites us.

Xiao Shun Chen - surveying land in Fujian
This is me reviewing the land surrounding another site that we visited in Fujian province.

After accompanying Jay on multiple visits across numerous sites, the site in the village of Da Chi was chosen. While of course I was happy for my customer’s business endeavors, I was tremendously excited about this location. The Feng Shui of the site was already very strong, but with just a few minor tweaks to the way that the land would be built on, I was confident the end result would be as close to perfect as possible. It is difficult to describe, but working on a brand-new project in this particular location was like giving an enthusiastic artist access to all the best supplies.

In fact, both of us were so excited that we started piecing together a rough model of the site on the floor of my kitchen using my grandchildren’s building blocks.  For our second model we used polystyrene boxes, a craft knife and some sticky tape. I’ve been involved at every step, right up to today where we are dealing with land elevation issues and potentially having to truck away more than 40’000 cubic meters of earth to create the perfect level. But thankfully, we have solved that problem in other more cost effective ways.

The very first layout that Jay and I made from building blocks.

Working with A Jie was relatively easy since we were used to each other but working with his team presented new challenges. For example, it seemed many on Jay’s team were expecting a curved or sloping roof design. For this to work, the roof’s apex would need to point north to south. Unfortunately, the layout of the land meant the positions of the buildings have to run east to west, and putting a north to south apex in what would be the narrowest part of the building would look…well, silly. And since any Feng Shui expert will tell you that running an apex east to west is a big no-no, that’s exactly what I told the team. While of course they were unhappy to lose that aspect of the design, this allowed us a fitting compromise: a flat roof.

One of the early architecture concepts with the roofing style that I rejected.

One of the more senior people on the project is from a place in the United States called Texas. Since this incident I’ve learned a few things about Texas, at least from Jay. They love cooking, quality food, and barbecue. The senior member had dreams of barbecuing an entire cow not only for the groundbreaking ceremony but every single event.  This clashes with my own particular interpretation of Feng Shui where cows are sacred and eating beef has a negative impact (some people might interpret it as bringing bad luck) on the harnessing of positive energy. In other words, the presence of beef on the site would undo many of the beneficial Feng Shui elements. I expressed my concern at this and told all of the senior members of the Nine Rivers Distillery team that this simply cannot happen.

The Texan, though, initially didn’t take this so well. He reminded me of a cartoon I had seen in my younger years, a big fellow with a face turning red and steam escaping his ears, but he composed himself extraordinarily well!  He paused, took a deep breath, shook my hand and explained that if that was important to the Feng Shui of this business, then he would support it.

I’ve since learned from A Jie that our friend from Texas has spent the last year practicing cooking whole pigs and whole sheep.  He never gave up his passion for barbecue and, much like the episode with the roof, he simply evolved to enjoy his passion in a way that suits the Feng Shui of the site.

How to barbecue an entire pig – Texas style.

This is just two of many examples where the total commitment from A Jie, the board of directors, and the investors in the project to supporting my interpretation of Feng Shui made me believe that this project really will be something quite special.  Being on video conferences with the Nine Rivers Distillery team and the architects and expressing my views on how this entire development should be designed – and to have my views not only listened to, but respected and followed to the letter… it’s surreal.

That’s what made me take the time to understand more about what this project really is and what it hopes to achieve. I’m really pleased that many on the team are now asking me questions and learning about Feng Shui. A large-scale collaboration with this many foreigners was something I never imagined happening.

What is Nine Rivers Distillery – To Me?

I see this project as a cultural bridge.  It’s a chance for people from both sides of the world (both from China and from the West) to come together and work towards a shared goal together.  It’s additionally a real-life proof of concept that both the West and China can cooperate in a capacity that transcends a simple supplier and customer relationship. This is a cooperation built not on commercial interests, but on a shared passion.

The final architecture, which includes the flat roofing style.

It’s no secret that my own knowledge and understanding of the Western world was almost zero.  I don’t even have the exposure to movies and TV shows that the younger generation have these days.  But from this project and my involvement so far, I’ve got to meet and talk to foreigners from many different countries.  Having a common interest, the distillery, has given us all the chance to know each other more.  The distillery has helped to break down barriers that would normally exist by default with no incentive to try and remove them.  I believe that this project can continue to give a reason for more people to engage across both cultures and with a glass of whisky in hand, conversation flows easier.

That was my reason to become an investor. While I would never usually invest in a project I was advising,  I am proud of my decision to get involved in something that has the potential to create so much good for both China and the West. That’s something I think all of us would feel good about, learning more about each other in our kitchens, in our distillery, or at a bar, sharing a glass of whisky.

Xiao Shun Chen

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