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Of all the things we’ve seen happen in the last few years, watching TikTok transition from an app full of choreographed dances to an actually useful resource with expert advice on everything from cleaning to taxes was extremely unexpected—and no one was more surprised than feng shui expert Cliff Tan.
After launching his channel, @DearModern, Tan went viral almost overnight. Now, he has more than 1.4 million followers on TikTok, 211k followers on Instagram, and most recently, a new book. We connected over Zoom with the debut author of Feng Shui Modern to discuss his tips for practicing the centuries-old art of feng shui and why he thinks these ancient principles of harmony between people and their environments are resonating so much in the modern world.
Feng Shui Modern by Cliff Tan
How did your interest in feng shui begin?
Cliff Tan: So, I’m an architect, right? I came to London to study and I graduated here and I started practicing here. And I opened my own firm, and I was working with clients designing their houses and apartments. I always use feng shui in the background, because I’m from Singapore. And in Singapore, this is very important—it’s not just part of our lives. It’s everywhere. It’s just subconscious. You use it for everything. Even when you’re young, you lay your baby a certain way, things like that. The function [of feng shui] is always there.
So that’s how it came about! I come from a place that has a lot of feng shui around me, it got me really interested, and I practice something that’s very related. In fact, it’s like we are the same—[feng shui and] architecture. And so I applied it.
For anyone unfamiliar, how do you explain feng shui?
CT: Essentially, feng shui is a bit like architecture. It’s how you build a thing in the best possible way. It has its own set of rules and logic, just as architecture has its own set of sets of rules and logic. Feng shui is just a more traditional, old-fashioned Chinese source of the same thing—of how you built buildings. I always incorporated it, because, to me, it’s very sensible.
I am particularly interested in the architectural side of things where it’s to do with the building structure, the flow of traffic, and the cycles in the house. [For me], it’s not so much about your date of birth or those kinds of things.
Why did you decide to share your knowledge of feng shui on TikTok?
CT: I was in quarantine in Singapore for two weeks, and I was very addicted to TikTok at the time. It came about during this pandemic, right? We did some home entertainment. So, I was watching, watching, watching, and I wanted to contribute something! Architecture was a bit too technical to share. Well, OK, what else can I talk about? Feng shui is quite simple. Or so I thought! I went with such basic knowledge that I didn’t think anybody would even think about it. But then people were interested, they liked it! They asked me, “why?” They were curious. And that was when I realized, oh, there are people who are interested to know and don’t know enough. Feng shui is a bit of a vague practice. It’s not immediately clear to everybody.
So, it was just about demystifying feng shui and talking about it in the way that I was most interested in—which is the architectural part, not the flying stars, not the dates. It’s more the actual building and the flow. That is the most physical thing [people] can feel.
How quickly did you go to 1.4 million followers? That's a huge jump in a very short amount of time!
CT: I don’t know, it was almost my first video! I wasn’t trying. I posted one video on something like Happy New Year, then the next video was about feng shui. And that just went straight away. And then followers kept coming back and asking me questions. So I was very lucky!
At the very beginning, the knowledge is very, very raw—no one has ever seen it before, so it’s very fresh. Because you know of feng shui but you have never had it explained before. Every video was so content-rich ... And I think I was quite real and sincere with my followers and tried to engage them in answering their questions. And I think that creating a real connection is very cool.
What are the main principles of feng shui that you think everyone should use when arranging or designing a room?
CT: Before you even think of the style or your favorite pieces, you think of the feng shui. This essentially means how you plan out the space so that you can use it well. And that means when you’re in your room, you should feel comfortable, you should feel protected. You should feel, like, not wrong in the space!
This is where feng shui comes in. It really looks into a person and their environment. So wherever you are—if I threw you in a busy restaurant, where would you place yourself? You wouldn’t stand right at the entrance because there are people moving in. And now you want to find a place that’s a bit quiet, but you wouldn’t be hiding in the storage room, you’d find a nice table. So it’s about that feeling.
In any empty room, you want to first know the purpose: if it’s for sleeping or for working? Then, find the best spot for that function. Once you have laid out all the different areas where you can do things and potential spots for furniture, that’s when you can find the furniture pieces that suit. Sometimes the room is very narrow. So in order to put a desk in the best place, you need quite a narrow desk. [Assessing the space first] is most important.
In some of your videos, you talk about the idea of being attacked—looking at a room and assessing where the attacker might come in. Is this a part of feng shui?
CT: A key concept or function is “the command position.” This is about feeling protected and being in control. It’s like sitting in an armchair—you want something to support your back. But you don’t want to be facing a wall, you should be able to see and have a good view. The support is really important because our eyes only face front. We wouldn’t know what’s going on behind us. And as long as there is the potential for something to happen that is not within our sights, we will not feel completely safe. And I mean, when I say safe, it’s not always safe from attackers. But just say … safe from being surprised or from your friends sneaking up on you. [It’s about being] conscious of your surroundings and 100 percent sure that you can see everything that’s potentially happening around you, because that is a nice feeling.
What are the biggest mistakes you see when it comes to how people plan out a room?
CT: You know when you see these news channels where they interview some expert and then they are on Zoom, and then we see this other door behind them and then the kids come in? ... You need to know that your space is not ideal. Even if no one is going to come in! But looking at you and having a big glaring door over there. That’s a bit distracting. Someone is gonna come in at any moment, you know!
What do you suggest for rooms where there’s no furniture to arrange? Can you still incorporate the principles of feng shui in a kitchen or bathroom?
CT: Very often you see [advice that says] you put a crystal to dissipate the energy, you put a plant to soak up the element of something else ... These things work to a certain extent, but they work if you understand them. They don’t work if you don’t understand them. Feng shui is all about the user and how they feel. So whatever you do, you have to understand: It has to have an effect on you. Do those things only if you can understand them.
I normally go for more literal approaches. If the bathroom is not laid out properly and you can see the toilet, just close the door. But it’s usually a bit more difficult to change the boundary of things that are fixed. For example, if a stove is against a wall, you should not sleep on the other side of it. ... But you can always use a thicker headboard. You don’t change the kitchen, you change the thing around it. Or sometimes you can change your lifestyle. If you find that it’s too much fire, then we can change the stove from a gas to an induction cooker.
It’s not that everything needs to be perfectly balanced every time, right?
Can you talk a little bit about the elements of feng shui?
CT: The elements are about balance. There are five elements of feng shui: fire, earth, water, wood, and metal, and they all have their own individual qualities. It’s not about how things look or how they appear. It’s what they represent.
Metal is not just any shiny thing, it’s about condensing. And water is something that’s very fluid, whereas wood is not something that’s brown! It represents growth, like plants. Where they balance each other comes from the union, the Yang. You have the black and the white, and, it has to complement and allow each other to exist. The elements are the same way—balance these things up.
But it also depends on the room, like in a kitchen, you do want it more fire. It’s not that everything needs to be perfectly balanced every time, right? It's more about knowing the use of a room and balancing [the elements for that room].
What is one thing that you want people to take away from your new book, Feng Shui Modern?
CT: Feng shui is always very misunderstood. There are people who believe in it in a way that strikes fear. “If I don’t do this, something bad will go wrong!” Or other people simply don’t believe in it at all. They dismiss it, they think it’s total rubbish. And so this book is meant to address both these people—to put at ease the people who are afraid of feng shui. It’s nothing to be afraid of. You’re not afraid of construction, it’s just a subject. [Feng shui] is not there to scare people or tell your politics or your futures. It’s also not utter rubbish. It’s there to guide you to do something the best possible way, and you can’t dismiss it because there is a logic behind it.
I have a quick explanation. There are three types of luck in life. The first one is called Heaven Luck, which is fate—things that you cannot control. What will be will be, you know, that is fate, that’s called Heaven Luck. The next one is Man Luck. That means how much effort you want to give, how hard you want to work. What are you going to do to get what you need? That is up to you—it is determined by yourself, how you can control your future. And the third one is Earth Luck. That means your environment, and how nice your environment is. It’s about giving you the best possible environment. One that is functional. We can’t control fate. We can’t control you. But we can give you the best possible environment. It’s like going to a good school. If you go to a good school, that doesn’t mean you will definitely get a good job. It also doesn’t mean you will become smart. But it gives you the best chance—it gives you the right tools and environment so that you can flourish.
We can’t control fate. We can’t control you. But we can give you the best possible environment.
Feng shui is like that. Everything we do is to give you the opportunity to do well. That's why whenever I say a rule, I explain why. You can decide for yourself if it works for you because it may not work for your room … It’s important to explain and let everyone understand that function is not bad. It’s not just superstition. There is a logic to it.
One last question: Your catchphrase that you say at the end of your videos! How did that come about?
CT: AND NOW YOU KNOW! I always believe that once you know something, you can’t unknow it. That’s the beauty of learning. You can spend two seconds watching a TED Talk video, but if there’s some kind of very important information in it, after that, you can’t get rid of it in your head. It’s already making an impact on your life.
So, now you know!