Japan from the inside out

Chiburger to go

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, February 27, 2008

SOME CRITICS LAMENT that people are reading less fiction than they once did, but I think those concerns are unfounded. People read just as much fiction as they always have—it’s just that the sources of their literary entertainment have changed. Nowadays, readers get their fiction from news articles instead of from novelists.


For the skeptical, here’s a story as absurd as any comic novel and which includes characters and passages that could have been invented by Jonathan Swift or William Burroughs. The Associated Press reports that the McDonald’s hamburger chain has opened a shop in Hacienda Heights, California, that incorporates the principles of feng shui in its design.

Feng shui (風水, fusui in Japanese) is the ancient Chinese practice of utilizing geography and astrology to determine the optimum location and positioning of residences, commercial establishments, and farms to receive and retain chi (気, ki in Japanese), or natural energy, to achieve harmony with one’s surroundings.

Some people consider it junk science, but it is being viewed with increasing respect by Western architects and designers.

Here’s how Brenda Clifford redesigned the hamburger joint:

With the help of a feng shui master, the designers added details that…include positioning the doors in a way that would block out bad spirits while keeping good ones inside…
The eight rows of red tiles near the food counter are another symbol of fortune, because the number eight is considered auspicious…
Clifford said she made the nearly fatal mistake of putting 44 seats in the dining area, until she learned that feng shui followers consider the number four a symbol of bad luck. So she added an extra seat to make it 45.

The outlet’s owners say they decided to incorporate feng shui principles because there is a well-known Buddhist temple nearby, which brings good luck.

Another factor in their decision is what the author calls the large Asian (read: East Asian) population in the neighborhood. McDonald’s has recently been implementing a policy of modifying shop designs and products to appeal to local communities.

And of course there is an unspoken third factor: combining two items unlikely to be mentioned in the same sentence—namely, the Palace of American Junk Food and Chinese cosmology–creates a media magnet that will reap publicity for the store owners, leading to increased customer traffic and higher profits.

The scenario has grown more common in recent years: Westerners encounter Asian culture and use the shells while throwing away the nuts. Other examples include the exercise regimen known as “power yoga”, a classic contradiction in terms that is laughable from the traditional perspective, and the perversion of Tantric yoga into a form of sexual gymnastics.

The objective of feng shui is to generate positive benefits that result in health, harmony, and abundance. While the Chinese certainly use the principles to foster success in their business enterprises, it would be difficult to imagine anything less conducive to health and harmony than the merchandise produced and sold by McDonald’s.

But let’s take a look at the article, starting with the headline on the MSNBC website:

Do you want fries with that Zen?

American author William Burroughs was known for the technique of cutting up and rearranging words, phrases, and sentences to create a non-linear narrative. It was one thing for the drug-addled Burroughs to razor through unrelated bits of prose and recombine them for the pleasure of avant-garde cultists. It’s another matter altogether when journalists employ the same technique because they’re too lazy to look in an encyclopedia.

Feng Shui originated several thousand years ago in China and was a local attempt to formulate principles for coexisting with the environment that are both philosophical and practical. Zen is a Japanese word for a specific practice within Buddhism. It also exists in China, where it is called chán, and where it is thought to have been developed in the 7th century AD. The original concepts probably came from India.

Zen has about as much to do with feng shui as Stonehenge has to do with Jesuits. A published article by working journalists that assumes the existence of one means the presence of the other? Straight out of Jonathan Swift or Evelyn Waugh.

The satirists also could have created the character of the designer, Brenda Clifford.

Meanwhile, the metal sculptures of a crane and Koi fish adorning one wall represent fertility and prosperity, she said.

The crane is a traditional symbol of longevity in both China and Japan. Koi—the Japanese word for carp—represent strength and endurance in both countries. The bird and the fish represent fertility and prosperity in much the same way a Big Mac represents nourishment.

But back to the journalists of the Associated Press. They’re still using the Burroughs technique of cutting and pasting unrelated words and phrases to create meaningless sentences:

The designs were…also done in a way that would help all customers tap their inner Zen.

And the way they take a noun from a foreign language and turn it into a new verb is almost Shakespearean:

Brownstein said he and his partners chose to feng shui the restaurant…

Who needs fiction after reading this two-screen marvel? Feng shui, food that isn’t food, a dizzy designer, a “professor emerita” offering junk education, and reporters and editors at the Associated Press better qualified to flip burgers than to write about them.

That has all the ingredients of an epic satire.

24 Responses to “Chiburger to go”

  1. ikemen said

    no surprise there,

    same as the typical caucasians mistake japanese faces for chinese and chinese faces for what-have-you-ex-indians

    that’s why asians are forever pissed about this blend-in phenomenon more than they’d like to

    but it works the other way round too, asians seeing western faces as doppergangers

  2. slim said

    The word Zen has morphed in popular Western usage into a vague catch-all word to describe seemingly mystical, spiritual phenomena: i.e., “That’s so Zen!”

    I don’t use the term that way and I don’t disagree with your takedown of this sloppily done AP story, but sometimes it pays to be a bit less literal when dealing with lighter fare in the realm of pop culture.

  3. Overthinker said

    “Some people consider it junk science”

    Such as scientists. There’s no science in feng shui. Qi (rather than Chi, the old Wade-Giles spelling) is supposed to be a form of energy, but no one has ever defined it properly or detected it. Penn and Teller did a show on Feng Shui in which they got three different “experts” to remodel a house, and got three entirely different remodellings.

    I don’t get your beef with cultural geography though. Some of these are very important issues:

    * questions of power, knowledge and identity with an emphasis on diversity and connections in relation to the inequalities and spatial reach of imperialism,
    –>Okay, the “imperialism” thing makes me wonder what the stance will be, but questions of power and knowledge and the like are the topic of serious debate (one of Foucault’s collections is called “Power/Knowledge” to emphasise this connection).

    * the power relations involved in networks of knowledge,
    –> More Foucault here I would say. You may not like him, but he is the subject of serious study.

    * the geographical imaginations at the heart of national identities
    –>Big issue in nationalism studies. See for example Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities”. Or Carol Gluck on Japan’s invented traditions.

    * the spatial patterning of sickness and mortality
    –> Don’t know what this is about. Probably just reflecting rich-poor divide.

    * the ideological settings of health and population policies
    –> Ditto.

    * the social, legal and cultural embeddedness of family systems.
    –> May well be considering how the modern ideal of the family came about, how the ‘family’ is seen throughout the world, etc. Hard to say based on just this.

    Anyway, there’s some solid stuff in there. You don’t really need to go trying to make fun of cultural geography to point out the sheer inanity of a feng-shui’d McDonalds.

  4. ampontan said

    You caught me there just as I was rewriting the part about cultural geography after I thought about it some more. Part of the problem is that all the explanations I saw from academics border on the incoherent.

    Here’s the deal with qi–I’ve been doing chi kung for three years now, and I can assure you that there is empirical evidence for what they say. Namely, me. I’m not going to try to convince you, but as they say, do it and you get it. And when you get it, you want to do it every day for the rest of your life.

    The problem is that it lies outside the scientific method. What happens when you do ten pushups is measureable. What happens when every cell in your body feels as if it is standing up and cheering is not.

    The example of the Van Allen Radiation Belt might be applicable here. It was discovered in the 1950s. But of course it existed in 1850, and 1750, and 1350…before people could even conceive of such a thing. Science eventually caught up.

    Science just hasn’t caught up to this yet. Or kundalini yoga, for that matter.

    I never paid much attention to feng shui until I went to Yamaga to see a festival a few years ago, which was after I understood the deal with chi gung. There’s something about the place that made me think there might be something to it after all.

    Can’t explain it, however, because it all has to do with direct experience.

    One thing’s for sure, however. They ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie.

  5. Overthinker said

    The Van Allen belts don’t really count. It’s not as if people “believed” in them before they were actually measured. Qi is supposed to be a sort of energy that can be diverted and controlled by, for example, strategic placement of furniture and walls. In other words, since it is affected by the physical environment, it must be a physical thing. But it registers on no energy-measuring devices – not electromagnetic, not radioactive, nothing. It’s not so much as case of “science catching up” as science saying “no there is actually nothing there.”

    I do not know what you mean by “every cell in your body feels as if it is standing up and cheering” but suspect it is do with endorphins or other physiological changes (emotions are, to a surprising degree, chemical in nature. That is, if we were just brains, we would lose a great deal of our emotions as we wouldn’t have the chemical systems that supply our brains and nervous system). However, while your own experience of your physical body is unique and almost impossible to measure (though increasing attention is being paid to the physiological effects of meditation, for example), claims about qi and the physical environment must be made in terms of the study of the physical environment, or else they are meaningless. It either affects/is affected by it or not, and if so it must be measurable in order to control it (which is exactly what people are trying to do with all this gimmickery). Otherwise it’s just expensive interior decorating. So I shall continue to take feng shui and qi with a grain of salt the size of China.

    And yes, academics like to use jargon to conceal the fact that half the time they don’t know what they’re talking about anyway. But sometimes, once you dig past the jargon, it turns out they’re actually talking about interesting stuff.

  6. ampontan said

    I’m not talking about externalities; I’m talking about what happens internally. If I feel a semi-liquid flow of energy running up the back of my spine over the top of my head and down my chest, it isn’t endorphins.

    It also isn’t a question of belief; it’s a question of direct experience.

    But the more I think about cultural geography, the more I see your point. You’re right; it doesn’t belong here.

  7. ponta said

    Qi, Chi or rather Ki in Japanese is a vague notion because I think it is the ultimate term which cannot be analyzed any further, but to me ki, I confess, is everywhere. Japanese language is filled with words using ki.
    Don’t analyse ki, but you can feel it….to some extent anyway.

  8. bender said


    Did you remove the part about “cultural geography” from your article? Just asking because the more I read your article, I don’t see what’s all the fuss about (it’s not even mentioned!).

  9. Overthinker said

    There is a difference between feeling a flow of liquid energy, and actually having a flow of liquid energy. The former is personal, and generated within the brain, being a sensation. The latter supposes an actual energy flow. The energy flow (“qi”) discussed here that can be affected by architecture and interior decoration is the one that scientists rubbish. Especially when it claims to be able to influence your wealth or life.

    Anyway, the article does make its point much more clearly now, though I suspect that the point I take from its theme of “fiction” is a bit different than yours (you seem to be that this is just an empty shell of a nonsense about genuine beliefs, whereas I consider that even applied in China feng shui is still fiction).

  10. ampontan said

    Bender: Yes I did, for a couple of reasons. First, it was too much of a tangent. Second, the initial research I did turned up a lot of academic gibberish, but then Overthinker pointed out the legitimacy of some of it, just when I was realizing the same thing independently after thinking about it some more. Sorry for the confusion.

    I’m going to have to find a way to write a book or two so I can better resist the temptation to throw in everything here.

    Overthinker: One of the problems when talking about certain aspects of yoga or qigong is that the empirical reality of it is overlaid and partially concealed with a lot of fanciful mythologizing that ancient man used to explain phenomena because he was incapable of explaining it any other way. Something very serious, but also very non-intuitive, happens if you keep practicing qigong long enough. There’s a definite emphasis on non-intuitive.

    There are plenty of serious scientists trying to find out what’s going on, and who know something is going on but not why.

    William Tiller’s name comes up often. He spent 34 years in Stanford University’s Department of Materials Science, nine years as an advisory physicist with the Westinghouse Research Laboratories, and is a Fellow to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science.

    At a conference, Tiller cited studies showing greater than normal measurements in qigong practioners (at what level I don’t know) of electromagnetic energy and infrared emissions. He says “The human body is not just a chemical and electrical machine, the body is a light machine”. He was part of another experiment that confirmed photon emissions from the hands.

    You have to be careful when reading about stuff like this on the web in particular; one example is the people citing quantum physics when they don’t know a thing about quantum physics (I certainly don’t.)

    But as you say earlier, once you dig past the jargon, they’re actually talking about interesting stuff.

  11. bender said

    but to me ki, I confess, is everywhere….Don’t analyse ki, but you can feel it….to some extent anyway.

    Reminds me of this (starting from around 2:20):

  12. Overthinker said

    Your experiences when doing qiqong or yoga are your unique experiences and thus non-replicable and not subject to science, much as my dislike of, say, certain foods. But when these people claim that they can create physical interactions, it’s a different matter.

    Tiller’s ideas are controversial, to put it mildly. However his credentials are not at issue (Harvard’s Mack believes in alien abductions, Arizona’s Gary Schwartz in the paranormal – after your comments on cultural geography I’d have thought you’d be more sceptical of “university professor” status). In one of his papers, Tiller concludes that the reason why “miracle” energy machines never seem to work when tested is because they have moved out of the environment which was “conditioned” for them to work in. Simply by “wanting” the machine to work. His work is all about “hypothesis” and “possible” stuff. It reminds me of the stuff “Dr” Masaru Emoto peddles, which is about how thinking happy thoughts can make pretty ice crystals form. And check out some of the reviews of “What the Bleep do we Know?” which featured Tiller (and a 35,000 year-old Atlantean warrior channelled by a scam artist-I mean wise woman) that are written by physicists.

    Incidentally, Tiller says that the “light” emitted from the palms was infra-red radiation. In other words, they had warm hands.

    Incidentally Part Two, Tiller could make a cool million by demonstrating any of his experiments (or rather, showing that they work). The James Randi Educational Foundation has a long-standing offer that no one has yet succeeded in claiming. Considering the excitement over the X Prize for the first private-enterprise spaceship it’s surprising how many paranormal claimants seem to not care.

    Seriously, when this stuff (IF this stuff) gets taken seriously by the scientific community, then I might believe it. Maybe I’m being as blind as the Catholic Church re Galileo (a parallel Tiller explicitly draws). I won’t go into why that is a bad analogy (for one thing, this isn’t science vs the church, it’s ‘science’ vs science: Galileo’s argument was not based on theology), but the grand thing about the slow acceptance of even correct theories is that it allows the nonsense to dribble out. He, like all the other fringe theorists, claim they are being suppressed by an “establishment” that rejects change (and does that right after he lists the ways in which science HAS changed).

  13. ampontan said

    Your experiences when doing qiqong or yoga are your unique experiences and thus non-replicable and not subject to science, much as my dislike of, say, certain foods.

    They’re not entirely unique, however. The experiences differ, but there are landmarks along the way that a lot of people experience.

    My information on Tiller was second hand, and I wasn’t aware of all that.

  14. bender said

    My information on Tiller was second hand, and I wasn’t aware of all that.

    He’s quite a trivia king!

  15. Paul said

    “I don’t use the term that way and I don’t disagree with your takedown of this sloppily done AP story, but sometimes it pays to be a bit less literal when dealing with lighter fare in the realm of pop culture.”

    In other words, Ampontan is a dork who needs to get out of Asia more often.

  16. ponta said

    (1)“I don’t use the term that way and I don’t disagree with your takedown of this sloppily done AP story, but sometimes it pays to be a bit less literal when dealing with lighter fare in the realm of pop culture.”

    In other words, (2)Ampontan is a dork who needs to get out of Asia more often.

    How does (2) follow form (1)?
    I am very interested in other premises you are assuming to get (2).

  17. Overthinker said

    The premise would appear to be that anyone who thinks Asian concepts should be used as they are actually used in Asia is being needlessly dogmatic. There is a point to this (Japanese curry is not a concept any Indian would recognise, for example), but how far are we to allowing the dumbing-down and general appropriation of ideas? When Californians sit around pretending to be Zen because they have a little stone garden outside, then what do they imagine real Zen is like?

  18. slim said

    but how far are we to allowing the dumbing-down and general appropriation of ideas?

    That ship has sailed in all too many cases, certainly with word “Zen”.

  19. Bender said

    Wasn’t Bill just trying to say that some journalists and academics who write about Asian culture are not qualified? They’re supposed to enlighten us, not misinform us with junk. Not so much concern over innocent consumers appreciating the aesthetics of Zen or whatever without really understanding the deep philosophy behind them.

  20. ponta said

    The premise would appear to be that anyone who thinks Asian concepts should be used as they are actually used in Asia is being needlessly dogmatic.

    Then why does he need to get out of Asia more often?
    And why does Paul want to describe him as a dork?
    I had to look it up in the dictionary,
    dork noun [C] SLANGa stupid awkward person.
    Did Paul just want to call names?
    Is that non-Asian way?

  21. ampontan said

    Ponta: Paul contributes his viewpoint to the Comments occasionally. One time he wondered if living in Japan too long made me a “self-loathing racist”.

    Aceface followed his links and discovered that he wrote a blog called “Nippon N*gger”.

    I ain’t losing any sleep over it.

    Bender: That designer, or whoever was advising her on symbols, wasn’t much better.

    McDonald’s is to nutritious food as that AP article is to informed journalism.

  22. bender said


    I think McDonald’s is trying to evolve into something like Starbucks. They’re making premium coffee now. And they’re probably trying to change their cheap red-and-yellow diner look into a “hip” design…and Japanese-like designs are considered “hip”, I guess. So they adorn the walls with tsuru and koi. If it’s accepted in SoCal, it’ll spread nation-wide. Maybe.

  23. Aceface said

    Did I just read the words,”Mcdonalds”,”William Burroughs” and “Feng Shui” all in one post?
    What were you smoking when you were working on this,Bill?

    I think “Paul” gave us a link to some whacky discussion forum on how difficult it is for a dorky gaijin to order a junk food that’s not even on menu in Mcdonalds few weeks ago.
    There were some insightful cultural explanation why the Japanese employee refuses of which I forgot.

  24. Aceface said


    ”Japanese curry is not a concept any Indian would recognise, for example”

    You’d think so,right?

    This guy is father of modern Japanese curry.
    It even has a sales copy”中村屋のカレーは恋と革命の味!”・

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: