Out there Hong Kong: Spiritualism Meets Capitalism

New York Times/September 20, 2007

In the penthouse of a prestigious commercial building in this citadel of capitalism, a middle-aged woman in a smart pink suit addressed a gathering of socially prominent business people.

Was she selling real estate, the latest European luxury goods, memberships in a fabulously expensive new club? Hardly. As a subtle whiff of incense wafted through the air, she told the assembled believers, in an impeccable British accent, that there was something better than affluence: looking inward. And that, she added, was what the guru they were all there to honor offers.

"Inward" is a concept that does not always fit the image of Hong Kong, a frenetic city of gleaming surfaces, endless one-upmanship and immense ambition, most of it aimed at the accumulation and show of wealth. A stroll through the Central business district can seem like a visit to the world's largest Rolex showroom.

But many of the people in the penthouse on that humid late summer evening said the sudden popularity of a charismatic young spiritual leader, the Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, suggests that Hong Kong may be changing. People are finding it's O.K. -- or at least fashionable -- to espouse what would have been heresy a few years ago: money may not be everything.

"I'm the last person you would have expected to do this, believe me," said Angela Martin, a businesswoman in a chic green suit who grew up in Hong Kong. "But I remember I was talking to someone about a friend who had gotten involved with the Gurumayi, and I said: 'I hate to be bad and horrible, which I usually am, but she looks 10 years younger. The stress is all out of her face. What is this?' That's when I started to say there's got to be more to life than chasing the almighty dollar."

Among the Gurumayi's adherents now are Joyce Ma, whose Joyce boutiques introduced Hong Kong's upper crust to designers like Giorgio Armani and Issey Miyake. There is also Dale Keller, a prominent interior designer for hotels, and Linda Ho McAfee and her husband, Gage McAfee, an American lawyer and a former president of the American Chamber of Commerce here.

The first person to introduce the Gurumayi, an Indian woman who teaches what is known as Siddha yoga, to Hong Kong's smart set was Margaret Tancock. She owns the franchise here for the Body Shop, a chain of stores selling personal-care products.

Some followers say they find the Gurumayi particularly appealing because she is not preaching a religion. She offers a method, they say, for finding happiness, not in the material things people here have long used as the measure of a person, but in themselves, "the incredible space within, which is the real you," as the guru puts it.

In the form of meditation she teaches, chanting and inspirational tapes combine in a method for unwinding and finding deeper reserves of energy. The Gurumayi's message is uncritical, suggesting that about the only thing that can go wrong is that a person will lose touch with "the true self."

"We make light things so dense," the guru says in a videotaped talk. "We make simple things so complicated."

A recent meeting in the penthouse involved watching a video of the Gurumayi, an attractive woman in a saffron-hued cap, delivering a talk in slightly accented English. She spoke in an amused and casual tone, sometimes eliciting chortles from the audience, as though they were all sharing an inside joke.

The guru has passed through Hong Kong only briefly. Those who are wealthy enough fly around the world to meet her. Cocktail chat here these days often turns to the places where people have caught up with her: in India, at a Catskills retreat, in Mexico.

"If you had asked me about this a few years ago, I would have said it can't happen in Hong Kong, no way," said Mrs. McAfee, who works for her father, one of Hong Kong's wealthiest shipping magnates. "There's an expression we have: 'You've changed the prescription of your glasses.' That's what it's like."

The popularity of the Gurumayi has attracted plenty of doubters, too.

"It is very fashionable -- there is certainly an element of that," said Sarah Monks, deputy director of publicity for the Hong Kong Trade Development Council and a journalist here for many years. "But people are starting to see that this incredible pursuit of wealth has taken a personal toll. It's acceptable now to talk about these problems. We're almost at the point where people will be saying openly that they're seeing a shrink."

It is not just the well-to-do who are spending less time shopping and more time considering the words of the Gurumayi. The four dozen or so people who showed up for the recent session included a mix of westerners, Chinese and Indians.

Ms. Monks and several others dismissed the notion that the collective search for enlightenment was related to strains arising from the British agreement to turn Hong Kong over to China on July 1, 1997. Whatever the reason, Gage McAfee, the lawyer, believes that interest in the Gurumayi's teachings has made Hong Kong a better place.

"I wouldn't have gone to an ashram, I can assure you, on a bet," said Mr. McAfee, who has visited the guru in India and upstate New York. "I had always thought of Hong Kong as being just about the Hang Seng index and Joyce boutiques. But I've found that Hong Kong is actually quite a sprititual place."

In fact, Hong Kong has a large Catholic church, and the heavy scent of joss sticks drifts from hundreds of Buddhist temples and shrines sprinkled throughout the crown colony. But now, when one small but growing group meditates, its devotees seek something more than the latest Hermes scarf: nothing.

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