Friday, May 29, 2009

Are Spiders and Octopuses Lucky in China?

After Singapore, we flew to Hong Kong and stayed there for a couple of days. There’s something about Hong Kong that I really like. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it is but it definitely has a character that I find appealing. San Francisco, Kyoto and Edinburgh are all the same.

I’m not the only one that likes Hong Kong. Paul Krugman was there at the same time, and he talks about how futuristic the place looks because the city has grown vertically rather than horizontally. (Incidentally, it appears he followed me back to Japan too. Paul, if you’re looking for advice on the economy and want to get in touch, just leave a comment below) Unlike Japan, Hong Kong is blessed with an absence of earthquakes, which allows for the construction of closely packed skyscrapers. With the dense greenery cloaking the Kowloon mountains behind, it makes for an incredible sight. (Click for full screen)

The majority of our meetings were in the loftier section of one of the skyscrapers and we had plenty of opportunities to admire the view. One of our clients joked that he has the best economic indicator right outside his window. He just monitors the number of tankers and haulers making their way in out of the bay and assesses the economic health of the region. One thing I did notice is that there are is no 4th floor in any of the skyscrapers. There’s no 24th floor either. I think that probably extends to 34, 44 and the rest. In both China and Japan, the number 4 is unlucky. The concept of “luck” is a western one and perhaps “unlucky” is a poor description. The reason for the negative association in both countries is that the number has the same pronunciation as the word for death. The character for 4 is 四. The character for death is 死. In Japanese, both words are pronounced し (shi). In order to avoid the association, the Japanese even go so far as to provide an alternative pronunciation for the number 4. You can also pronounce it よん (“yon”). The practice of excluding the 4th floor in a building is similar to that of excluding the 13th row in an aircraft. I’ve always wondered if anyone on the 5th floor gets upset. After all, if you’re on the 5th floor, you’re actually on the 4th floor and to add insult to injury, you’re being lied to.

On the opposite side of the fence, it turns out that two wrongs do make a right because when you double 4, you get 8, which is a very lucky number in both Japan and China. When I was in Hong Kong, I noticed that the number 8 appeared in a lot of advertisements, prices, signs etc. A quick search on Wikipedia, reveals the following trivia:

A telephone number with all digits being eights was sold for USD$270,723 in Chengdu, China.
A man in Hangzhou offered to sell his license plate reading A88888 for RMB 1.12 million (roughly $164,000 USD).

And I’m sure you will remember:

The opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Beijing began on 8/8/08 at 8 seconds and 8 minutes past 8 pm (local time)

Interestingly, the reason for the positive association with the number 8 is different in Japan and China. My friend from Hong Kong tells me, and Wikipedia confirms, that the Chinese pronunciation for 8 is similar to the pronunciation for “prosperity” and “fortune”. In Japan, the shape of the character used to represent the number is more important. The Japanese say 末広がり, which means to “broaden towards the end” and can be used to describe increasing prosperity as time goes on. The character broadens towards the bottom and represents this idea.

I wonder if things associated with the number 8, like octopuses or arachnids, inherit the association of good fortune?


  1. In Japan, seeing a spider in the morning is a sign of good luck.

    Luck is an attention grabbing topic to many - especially for those wanting to improve it.

    You cover some good points and here's something to add.

    Number 4: As you say, four is a dreaded number all over Asia since it sounds like the word for 'death' in many Asian languages. Companies that produce electronic gadgets such as cell phones often skip over the number when naming their product lines, and (as you say) many buildings don't have a fourth floor. But, you really make a good point when asking what people on floor #5 think!

    Even unluckier to the Cantonese is the number 14, since the pronunciation 'sap sei' is dangerously close to 'sat sei', which means "certainly going to die".

    Number 8: Pronounced 'ba', this is the luckiest number of all, since in both Mandarin and Cantonese it sounds similar to the word for wealth or fortune. The Bank of China always assigns its trading rooms to the eighth floor of its buildings, and China's tallest skyscraper, the Jin Mao Tower, is eighty-eight floors high. The Cantonese-speaking Hong Kongers especially value the number eight, and eighty-eight-dollar fixed-price menus are found in restaurants all over the island (seen any?).

    Other numbers favored by Chinese culture include #3 - pronounced 'san', it sounds like the word for life, #6 - pronounced 'liu', it sounds like the word for 'smooth' and is considered lucky since it portends '"everything is going smoothly" in life as well as in business, #9 - pronounced 'jeou', sounds like the word for 'long-lasting' as is a lucky number to have because it represents longevity in every aspect of life.

    Some beliefs according to Japanese culture: If you wear a pair of new shoes for the first time at night, bad luck will come. Avoid stepping on the cloth border of tatami floor mats as it's bad luck, even with shoes off and finally, seeing a spider in the morning is a sign of good luck - just be careful not to step on it.

    All the best of good fortune to you!

    Source credit: 'Luck - The Essential Guide' by Collins 2008

  2. In Malaysia all buildings have a '3A' floor instead of a fourth floor. We used to live on the '13Ath' floor :-)

  3. Nice article. I've always known about the number 4, but the number 8 wasn't in my memory. Interesting to see people taking it so seriously though - if I ever get my hands on something 8-related, I'll be sure to keep it for selling! :P

    By the way, you should update your blog to use wordpress or something. The content you write is far too good for blogger ;).

  4. Yeah, the Olympics sprang to mind, as did HSBC's pretty hard marketing all of last year. I was actually pretty pleased when '09 rolled around and they let off.

    A lot of places in the US don't have a 13th floor, but I figured it just made up for them counting the first floor wrongly ;o)

    You mention that "luck" is a Western idea and that "unlucky" is perhaps the wrong word... would you care to expand on that? How would you better describe the Japanese/Chinese position on things such as these numbers? It seems very similar to lucky/unlucky from the point of view of someone who doesn't believe in such "superstitious mumbo jumbo"...

  5. Sorry for the late reply. I'm not exactly sure about how the Japanese think about "luck" but here's my take on your question.

    For me, the English word "luck" refers to a property that can be attached to people. People are lucky if, given a set of possibilities, unlikely and beneficial ones occur. The more unlikely, the more beneficial and the more frequent the occurrence then the luckier the individual. If you win the lottery, you were lucky. If you fall off a cliff and walk away with a bruise, you were lucky. If you persistently roll a six, you're lucky. In short, the English word "luck" seems to be intimately associated with chance.

    In Japan, I wouldn't describe the number 4 as "unlucky" in this sense. It's more about the abhorrent association with death. The consequences of that association are (presumably) that you may die or be haunted by ghosts, not that you will be unlucky. Obviously it would be unlucky for these things to happen, but the association with "luck" seems to be implicit rather than explicit.

    With the number 8, I suppose that the association with luck is more direct. The belief is that the number 8 will bring prosperity and I guess we'd say that anything that brings prosperity is lucky.

    It's just my take on things anyway. Not exactly thoroughly researched.

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