Hong Kong Numerology: Why Is Four So Unlucky?

In Chinese tradition, some people believe that certain numbers are auspicious (gat1 lei6 吉利) or inauspicious (bat1 lei6 不利). This stems from the principles of Chinese numerology, which is largely based on homophones or near-homophones of numbers. Being tonal languages, Cantonese and other Chinese languages have a large number of words that sound alike, which makes it easy to invest them with layers of superstition. 

One of the most famous examples of this is tetraphobia: fear or avoidance of the number four. In Cantonese, four (sei3 四) sounds similar to the word for death (sei2 死), and it is thus considered unlucky. People will go to great lengths to avoid instances of the digit, especially during festive holidays and when close ones are in ill health. Giving four of something is actively discouraged; the number is also avoided in phone numbers, security numbers, business cards, addresses and ID numbers.

In Hong Kong, some buildings skip floors containing the number, and it is not uncommon to find high-rises that lack a fourth, 14th, 24th floor and so on – or even the entire range of floors from 40 to 49 in some particularly tall buildings. The reasons for this may not be entirely rooted in superstition. Some speculate that tetraphobia is a convenient way to make a building seem taller than it is, as flats on higher floors fetch higher prices on the property market. 

Tetraphobia may have even led China to avoid pursuing a bid for the 2004 Olympic Games following its losing attempt to host the 2000 Olympic Games; instead, organisers waited for the 2008 Olympic Games, the number eight being particularly auspicious in Chinese numerology. 

Although tetraphobia is shared across the Chinese-speaking world, as well as in countries like Japan and Korea, Cantonese speakers in particular have even more numbers to avoid. 14 and 24 are considered even more unlucky than the number four on its own. 14 (sap6 sei3 十四) sounds like “will certainly die” (sat6 sei2 實死), while 24 (ji6 sei3 二四) sounds like “easily dies” (ji6 sei2 易死).

It is interesting to compare tetraphobia in Asia to triskaidekaphobia—fear or avoidance of the number 13—in European cultures. That superstition in generally less apparent, but Hong Kong’s British colonial heritage has given it a foot in both worlds. Most buildings that skip floors containing the number four also skip the 13th floor, which means 12 is followed by 15. In a city as obsessed with numerology as Hong Kong, it doesn’t matter if a superstition has foreign roots – it’s better to be safe than sorry.

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