Skip to main content

When Sandra Eadie wants to go to her 32nd-floor condo with its sweeping view of Lake Ontario, she pushes button 37 on her elevator. "I'm in number 3706, but I really should be on the 32nd floor, which is really confusing," says Ms. Eadie, a financial analyst.

Chinese superstition isn't the domain of grannies and other Old World throwbacks. Educated, sophisticated, modern, perfectly rational people embrace it too. And real-estate developers anxious to attract these same people are playing along -- to the confusion of customers like Ms. Eadie.

In a bid to attract Chinese buyers, Concord Pacific Group, the developer at Ms. Eadie's City Place complex, eliminated the fourth, 14th, 24th and 34th floors in each of the 10 towers it is erecting in downtown Toronto, the way other builders cut out the 13th floor. (Oh, City Place did that too. Superstition is nothing if not multicultural.)

But the point isn't merely avoiding unlucky numbers. Chinese want lucky numbers too. Not all that long ago, you could easily request them for phones or car licences. But the influx of immigrants from China means that the competition is getting ferocious.

Chinese now account for 10 per cent of the population of Greater Toronto. Today, it's a bit like winning the lottery to obtain a cellphone lucky number. "You can never find triple 8s available. They are all taken," says Mike Dahlke, a Fido salesman at Don Mills Centre, scanning a list of available cellphone numbers. (Not surprisingly, there are plenty of numbers available with 4s.) At the motor-vehicle licence bureau, a clerk types 88888888 and 66666666 into her computer to see if they're available in vanity plates. They're not. But 86868686 is -- for $212.60, itself a lucky sum.

I have no affinity for numbers. Despite my ethnicity, arithmetic was never my strong suit. I had heard allegations that number 4 is unlucky because it's a homonym in Mandarin and Cantonese for death. And 8 is great because it rhymes with getting rich.

This week, I learned that 9 is a pun for forever or long life. Six is a pun for both smooth sailing and big fat sinecure (a plum job that takes little effort). And 3 is a homonym, in Cantonese, for life. One and 7 are neutral (unless you're Westernized and then 7 is lucky). Five and 2 are wild cards. Five is a pun for "not," which safely neutralizes a bad number. So 54 means "not dead." Disappointingly, 58 means "not rich." Number 2 in Cantonese is a pun for "easy." Combined with 8, it means "easy riches." With 4, it means "easy death."

Recently, I've begun to feel like an idiot savant. All these random numbers in Toronto suddenly have patterns. I now realize why banquets for 10 in Chinese restaurants have odd price tags like $688.88. The phone number on a sign for Tradeworld Realty Inc. in Thornhill, 886-2888, leaps out at me, shouting: "rich, rich smooth -- easy rich, rich, rich."

"All the numbers are lucky," Tony Chien, a Tradeworld broker says happily. His own cellphone number is 618-1222, or "smooth path to riches -- easy, easy, easy." But Mr. Chien insists that he's not the superstitious type. "My wife is very superstitious. She wants everything to end in 8."

When they bought their home, his wife, Ruth Lee, insisted on bidding amounts that ended in $168 ("smooth path to riches"). Ta-da! They got the home.

Now, she persuades her husband to make real-estate offers that end in $168. He goes along, even though he's sure there's nothing to it. But what about his Volvo's plate, which ends in 108, a pun for "always rich"?

He blames the car dealer. "The saleswoman was Chinese," says Mr. Chien, who is Chinese too. "She gave me an 8. I'm not exactly that superstitious."

Nor is Pei Yu, a professor of applied mathematics at the University of Western Ontario. He specializes in non-linear systems, control theory and other esoteric fields. He doesn't specialize in lucky numbers.

He has no cellphone. He doesn't even remember his own licence-plate number. And as a man of science, Prof. Yu naturally pooh-poohs all this numbers nonsense. But he quickly adds, "Of course, if they give me a 444 number, I'd want to change it completely. I wouldn't feel too comfortable."

Dr. Raymond Chan, also a man of science, has an auspicious phone number, 223-8666. A general practitioner, he made sure he took it over when another doctor retired. It means "easy, easy life -- rich, fat sinecure, fat sinecure, fat sinecure." The number, he says contentedly, has brought him "peace and goodwill."

Chinese superstition isn't fading. Fifth-generation Catholics may stop crossing themselves when they pass churches, but Chinese numerology lives on because it's linked to longevity and wealth. Unlike the Calvinist approach to materialism, it's culturally acceptable in Chinese circles, indeed, overtly encouraged, to get rich.

Even newspapers, which pride themselves on fact-based reporting, play the numbers game. Toronto's three Chinese dailies all have auspicious phone numbers. World Journal's is 778-0888, lucky in both East and West. Ming Pao's 321-0088 means "easy life, double riches." Sing Tao Daily's 861-8168 means "riches all the way."

"And we all make money," laughs Kelvin Li, Sing Tao's deputy editor-in-chief. "So you can see, the aim of opening a newspaper is to make money, not to spread the news."

A decade ago, Mr. Li once stood on the corner of Finch and Steeles, a Chinese neighbourhood, and, for his own amusement -- he's a journalist -- scanned licence plates. He'd find interesting combinations of 9s, 6s, 3s and 8s. "Then I'd look at the driver," he says, adding that 90 per cent would be Chinese.

Lucky numbers aren't new to Toronto. Dr. Chan obtained his phone number 30 years ago. World Journal got its listing 20 years ago. "At first, it was not difficult to get these numbers," says David Ting, the newspaper's president. He adds that he easily obtained a home phone ending in 8686 as recently as four years ago.

The rest of the population -- people who care little if they get an 8686 number -- find the reaction to unlucky digits bewildering. Billy So, an agent with Harvey Kalles Real Estate, says that several years ago Chinese who bought properties in Richmond Hill with the address number 14 would often pay a fee to change it to 12A. "That confused the fire department and the police," Mr. So says, adding that the municipality no longer permits this.

At City Place, construction workers were puzzled when they began building Ms. Eadie's condo tower. Someone had daubed the numbers of each raw floor in bright red paint beside the elevator shaft. And then someone crossed the numbers out. "Everything over three had to be changed," she recalls.

The tallest towers will have 49 levels, but City Place will market them as having 56 floors, according to John Mehlenbacher, manager of sales. Although the developer will eliminate the 44th floor, which means "definite death," it decided against skipping all other levels beginning with 4. Still, none of the apartments will be numbered 4. Asked why, Mr. Mehlenbacher says tartly, "Try selling them."

The Globe and Mail's 444 Front St. W. address means "death, death, death." Somehow we seem to have survived the newspaper war. "There you go," says Tonny Louie, a Chinese real-estate agent, who adds, "I don't believe 4 will cause imminent death."

By chance, The Globe is kitty corner from City Place, which will eventually occupy the entire area bounded by Front, Spadina Avenue, Lake Shore Boulevard and Bathurst Street. Mr. Mehlenbacher shuddered when asked if Concord Pacific might also be interested in purchasing The Globe site. "We can't touch that. We'll have to change that address."

Interact with The Globe