PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 August, 2012, 7:27am

Lucky numbers are a zero-sum game


Bonny Schoonakker has worked as a journalist in South Africa, Europe and, now, Asia, reporting on war and peace, and everything in between, for more than 30 years. Despite being in newspapers for an uncomfortable length of time, he feels he still has a lot to learn and cannot shake off the suspicion that you are only as good as your next story, no matter how good your last one. However, he does know that truth is a lie’s best cover, and remains constantly on the alert.

Beijing's Municipal Administration of Quality and Technology Supervision has decreed, says Xinhua, that "the numbers of multi-storey buildings, units and door plates should be coded and registered in numerical order and no skipping or selective use of numbers should be allowed".

From Saturday, a floor in a high-rise building unlucky enough to find itself sandwiched between the 43rd and 45th will still have to be called the 44th, no matter how grim "forty-four" sounds in Putonghua ("death-death").

This seems a touch heavy-handed, and Xinhua's report on the issue would have been more helpful if it explained what inconvenience this superstitious belief in the unluckiness of certain numbers has caused. Instead, the report quoted only the results of an internet survey of 2,596 people which found that most supported the plan.

Scientifically, a home with an unlucky number may indeed be more likely to burn down than one with a lucky one - for example, if someone forgets to switch off the stove because he or she was preoccupied with the thought of living in number 13 or 44. A credulous person may be so distracted by the imagined consequences of living in number 44, rather than the lucky 88, say, that he or she neglected to turn off the gas. Honestly, though, are there really that many stupid people around? (No need to answer.)

Beijing itself is in thrall to such superstitions. For example, it decreed that the 2008 Olympic Games should officially start on the eighth day of the eight month, as the Xinhua report reminded us. What the state news agency did not say, of course, was that so too did the Cultural Revolution, in 1966. Over the next 10 years, millions died as the revolutionaries tried to abolish the old, superstitious ways of doing things, whether the people liked it or not. Now how unlucky was that?

Alex Lo is on leave



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