The Number Eight And The Chinese

In Chinese communities around the world, eight is considered the most fortuitous of numbers, making it much coveted for addresses, phone numbers and bank accounts."

If you're Chinese--every fifth person in the world is--an eight not only portends prosperity but confidence and money worth even millions, depending where you are.

"In Hong Kong, a personal license plate with the number eight can cost millions of dollars," says Alhambra, California developer Raymond Cheng, who was born and reared in the British colony. "A single eight on your license plate gives you status. People know you have to pay top dollars for it."

Today--the eighth day of the eighth month--the cultural significance of the number eight will be renewed in the Chinese American communities in the United States too.

For centuries, this ancient culture has held eight as the most fortuitous of numbers. Early Chinese settlers coming to California a century and a half ago brought their beliefs with them, passing them on to the new generations.

Since the '70s, with the influx of moneyed immigrants to the state from Taiwan and Hong Kong, the traditional tenet about the number eight has moved beyond the gates of Chinatowns to become an American suburban fact of life.

Chinese home buyers in the San Gabriel Valley routinely look for an eight in a street address, viewing it as an added value. Some try to have their home address changed to include an eight. Others seek to rid a number, such as a four--considered unlucky because it sounds like the Chinese word for "death." Many pay to get as many eights as they can in phone, fax and license numbers.

There is even a Chinese restaurant named 888 in Rosemead. Chinese Yellow Pages for the San Gabriel Valley have more eight combinations than one thought imaginable.

"If they get a phone number or a checking account with a lot of eights, they're extremely happy," says Councilwoman Judy Chu of Monterey Park, who is Chinese American.

Recently, when she opened an account at a Monterey Park bank, the bank made sure it had many eights. "They thought I would be pleased," Chu says.

Next door in Alhambra, Raymond Cheng and his wife, Tina, have a lot of eights between them.

His business phone is (818) 282-2828. His fax number: (818) 282-0283. Their three cars--a Rolls-Royce, his and her Mercedes-Benzes--also have ample sprinkling of the number eight. And, naturally, their home phone and street address are sprinkled with eights. (His parents' Hong Kong flat is on the 18th floor and the street number on their San Francisco home is 18.)

Cheng, who serves on more than 10 civic and professional boards in addition to owning a development company and a Chinese restaurant, won't go so far as to say that the many eights in his life contributed to his visible prosperity.

But his wife ventures: "All things being equal, an eight gives you added confidence." After all, it's worked for Hong Kong. One has to ask the question why has Hong Kong done so well in such a little space? Cheng says.

"Hong Kong is a small island with no natural resource, and yet it is one of the world's most important financial centers." Here in Los Angeles, too, he lives with what he calls a "Hong Kong syndrome."

Not long after opening his own company in 1983, Cheng won a contract to remodel Los Angeles National Bank in Monterey Park. "I had to complete everything in 2 1/2 months because the owner absolutely said a grand opening would be on Aug. 8," Cheng recalls.

Working nights and weekends and getting a city inspector to come out on a Saturday, Cheng made sure the bank had the grand opening on Aug. 8.

"There was no other reason except that the date signified good fortune and prosperity," he says. Daniel T.C. Liao, a ranking Taiwanese government official who served as the director of the Chinese Cultural Center in El Monte, says the belief follows wherever Chinese go.

"Orientals in general and Chinese in particular believe in sounds and figures that reflect good fortune and good luck," Liao says. "It doesn't cost you anything to believe in good luck. If you have a license number with an eight, you drive more comfortably. If you live in a house with an eight, you live more comfortably. Thinking that you are blessed, you perform better," he says.

The value of the number eight is also tied to the Chinese affinity for homonyms. "The Chinese like to make use of sounds that make them feel comfortable," says Liao, a linguist by training.

The phonetic sound of eight--"baat" in Cantonese and between "pa" and "ba" in Mandarin--is similar to "faat," meaning prosperity, say native Mandarin and Cantonese speakers.

When you have two eights, as in the area code 818, it's doubly pleasing to the Chinese ear. "You're literally hearing prosperity and more prosperity," Liao says.

So, for example, Raymond Cheng's telephone number (818) 282-2828 translates to "prosperity guaranteed prosperity-easy prosperity and more easy prosperity." His fax number, (818) 282-0283, means "prosperity guaranteed prosperity-easy prosperity twice and long life" (for good measure).

Perhaps that's why of all the area codes on the continental United States, the Chinese like 818 the best. "There are people who moved here because of the area code," Councilwoman Chu says. Monterey Park is the only city on the continental United States with an Asian majority.

Some Chinese Americans go so far as to say that the phenomenal growth of the Chinese population in the San Gabriel Valley in the last two decades is because of the auspicious 818 area code.

"It's no accident that developer Fred Hsieh capitalized on the area code in marketing Monterey Park as the Chinese Beverly Hills," says Angi Ma Wong, a Chinese American intercultural consultant in Los Angeles. "The area code was so good that it brought the development of new capital, new immigration and helped this whole area bloom."

But now, the prized area code may be taken away from the San Gabriel Valley. Because of the proliferation of phone numbers, the state Public Utilities Commission has been asked to split up the San Fernando Valley's 818 area code in Burbank and install the new 626 area code in communities from Burbank east into the San Gabriel Valley.

That spells death to the Chinese because 626 adds up to 14. While four means death, 14 is even worse. "Fourteen means guaranteed death," Wong says. "Whether read from right to left as the Chinese do, or from left to right as the Americans do, it means the same thing--guaranteed death."

Monterey Park has filed a complaint with the state PUC to try to retain 818. (The cities of Burbank and Glendale have joined Monterey Park in opposing the proposed change.)

In a sure sign of the times, a key argument raised by lawyers for Monterey Park is cultural. "Chinese residents of the San Gabriel Valley routinely request both addresses and telephone numbers that contain the number eight, which is associated with good fortune, happiness and prosperity," lawyers for Monterey Park told the state regulatory agency.

They also told the PUC, which is expected to decide by the year's end, that out of respect for the cultural beliefs of its Chinese residents and businesses, Monterey Park, along with other San Gabriel Valley cities, permits residents to alter their addresses whenever possible to avoid numbers associated with bad luck, failure or death--such as 14.

The number eight doesn't have the same appeal to the Japanese or Koreans--whose cultures have been influenced by the Chinese--but all three cultures are united in their avoidance of the number four.

Many buildings in Asia do not have a fourth floor. Councilwoman Chu, who is American-born, said she did not give much thought to Chinese numerology until she tried to sell a condo with an address 624 in the San Gabriel Valley. "A number of Chinese came to look at it, but I could not sell it," Chu says. "Finally, I sold it to a white guy."

Chinese American historian Suellen Cheng also doesn't consider herself superstitious, but the curse of four is so pervasive in her culture, she is reminded of it on occasion. "My house address has a four," says Cheng, a curator at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. "Sometimes when I am really depressed over something, I think, 'Oh it's because of my house number,' " she laughs.

Eight years ago this day--8-8-88--certified public accountant Saykin Foo of Los Angeles bought eight lottery tickets to test his luck. He did not win. Undaunted, Foo says he'll try his luck again today. "It's a cultural thing," he says. "I grew up with it. It's part of my life."

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