Town Bans the Number Four from New Addresses Because It Freaks Out Chinese People

The Richmond Hill Town Council (near Toronto) had decided that no new housing developments can use the number 4.

The reason:

In Cantonese and Mandarin, “four” sounds similar to “death.” Because of the number of requests the town receives for address changes, council decided to skip the number going forward in a five-four vote earlier this month.

Numbers like 14 and 24 are still allowed, and people who live in homes marked with a four can apply for a suffix, like 4B.

4 is the new 13…

I can’t decide whether I’m mad at the town for caving in to some group’s idiotic superstitions, or I’m fine with it since having houses numbered 4 would hurt the town in the long run. It’s a little of both… At least in this case, you can make an economic argument in support of it:

Having a 4 in the address can lower a home’s value — “Agents estimate anywhere between $25,000 and $35,000,” Graham Canning says.

Still, I wonder where the line gets drawn. One source in the article explained the condo developers are eliminating floors “four, 13, 14 or 24″ from their buildings. That’s ridiculous. And the people on floor five are just lying to themselves.

It’s madness that gets validated because the city’s doing what it has to do. I can’t blame them, but I can still curse the fact that they have to cater to superstition because it’s so prevalent in the community.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • DNAisTheTruth

    I thought it was the number 9. I run the telephone system for a major non-profit research lab and I had a new scientist from China request a new extension number because the one I assigned to him had a 9 in it. Oddly it had 4s in it, but that was ok. How ironic that a person doing research should think that the number 9 had some power over him. What’s it going to do, randomly change his data?

    • MineApostasy

      A quick googling indicates that 9 used to be associated with the Emperor, so that could be partially it. Or he wanted a stronger number like 7. We all know how 9 fares when compared to 7.

  • SeekerLancer

    It also has the same sound and superstitious meaning in Japan as well. It’s one of the reasons they have two counting systems, one where the word for four, “shi” is replaced with “yon.” Though it was also because it sounded too similar to the number 7, “shichi” which is changed to “nana.”

    • Ryan Jean

      I studied Japanese for several years back in College, and one of the most intriguing things for me was that they actually had a separate word, “yon”, which replaced the traditional number four, “shi” (the one that is the same as the word for death), in many cases. I found it strange and nonsensical, but then again what superstitions aren’t?

      Edit: Ok, it is definitely strange when you make a comment that elaborates on what someone else said, and then shortly after they edit theirs to elaborate that same point…

      • Amakudari

        This is really just because there are Chinese and Japanese readings called on’yomi and kun’yomi, respectively. “shi” is Chinese, “yon” is Japanese. The other super-common one is “shichi” or “nana” for 7, but you get the same with 1 (ichi, hito-), 2 (ni, futa-), 3 (san, mi-). They’ll mix and match a lot. 1 station is hitoeki, 2 is futaeki, but 3 is san’eki. The analog in English is Latin; we know that a quadrilateral has four sides mean the same thing, we just don’t go crazy mixing the two.

        • Sids

          Er… Maybe I’m misunderstanding you, but shi is Chinese for 10, not 4. 4 is si. The characters are the same as Japanese though.

          • Amakudari

            Right. Maybe I should have used rabbit ears for “Chinese.” It’s basically the Japanese approximation that may have come from any dialect or region of China at any historical period and been modified within Japan, so it doesn’t necessarily bear a resemblance to how any of today’s Chinese speak. Furthermore, there are substantially fewer valid syllables in Japanese (maybe 100 in use for Japanizing Chinese).

            The “Chinese” reading for 4 is shi, and for 10 it’s juu. The Japanese can’t say “si” anyway; the basic s-series of syllables is sa, shi, su, se, so ;)

        • baal

          I thought the better analogy is that in English we have both latin and germanic parallel words. You get interesting pairs in archaic law that preserves this. For example, assault and battery – though distinct at modern law, go back in time and they were meant as synonyms, assault is latin in origin and battery is germanic (eh, anglo-saxon is better).

    • Amakudari

      My first apartment here in Tokyo was room number 402. One way to “read” that is 4 = shi, 2 = ni, therefore shini, which is death. It’s not as serious as 42 or 49 (shiku = die… in pain!). I always wondered if I was lucky or if they actually had trouble finding a tenant.

      Another bizarro superstitution is the rokuyou, the rotating six lucky and unlucky days of the calendar. There’s a substantial premium on getting married on taian (“great fortune”), which means everyone’s competing to hold a wedding on one or two Saturdays or Sundays of the month. I prefer to hold events on butsumetsu (“Buddha dies”).

      • Stev84

        Yeah, they probably thought they could stick the clueless gaijin into the death apartment no one else wanted.

  • Alexandra

    I don’t know, I’m staying in a hotel right now that doesn’t have a 13th floor. Legislating it is a little silly, but the economic argument is compelling. Developers might not always be aware of the cultural issues sounding the #4, so having actual legislation guiding them towards making the most profitable decision might actually be helpful.

    It’s partly superstition, but it’s also just an unfortunate homonym that people might not aware of.

  • Ryan Jean

    My in-laws are Chinese and I see that superstition with them as well, although not quite as pronounced as in this story. I think the most extreme part was learning that a few of my wife’s relatives were hesitant to come into town for our public marriage ceremony (we were originally wed downtown) several years back because it was on the 4th of the month. Ironically, some of those same relatives showed up to the wedding of my wife’s best friend just last year, on the exact same month/day, so I think it was more an excuse to not have to travel out of town for a wedding at the time.

    • JapanParent

      There is also a somewhat complex calendar system of “good luck” and “bad luck” days. It could have been that your wedding day was not simply on the 4th, it may have also been a bad luck day in addition to that. Who knows, though.

      • Ryan Jean

        Perhaps, but I’m going off the reason they *gave* us at the time (and we have the RSVP card politely declining where this was written by them as the reason, so it’s not simply a question of my memory). I’m honestly thinking the whole “4 is unlucky” was either just easier than traveling out of town, or perhaps than saying they didn’t want to go to a wedding where one of their family was marrying a “bakgwei”/”gweilo” (derogatory Chinese for white guy), since the same family members still call me that.

  • Yoav

    Now if they had a problem with the number that is two times four or seven plus one I would understand, but 4, seriously.
    +++++our of cheese error+++++redo from start.

    • Mike N.

      Why anything?
      …Because everything

    • Whirlwitch

      Points for Discworld reference.

  • Baby_Raptor

    I…um…Well, that’s a thing.

  • Winter Toad

    My in-laws also subscribe to this superstition to a greater or lesser degree. The comment about “people on floor five are just lying to themselves” doesn’t really apply, since it’s not the position that bothers them so much as the numeral itself, being required to speak the number four out loud when communicating information like addresses and phone numbers. It’s in the speaking aloud of a homonym for “death” that the misfortune is seen to arise.
    A very common social situation is two couples going out to dinner. That’s a party of four. It’s not considered tempting fate to go out in a party of four, people don’t go rushing out to find a fifth member to avoid misfortune, but in the fancier restaurants in Taiwan, the hostess will come up and ask, “Table for three plus one?”

    • Jeff See

      The people on floor five, ARE lying to themselves: they’re on the 4th floor, no matter what your fear makes you call it.

      • Winter Toad

        I don’t think you understood my point. They don’t mind that it’s the fourth floor (reckoning by the fact that it’s the floor above the one numbered ’3′). The misfortune doesn’t come from living on the fourth floor. It comes from speaking aloud the Chinese (in any of several dialects) word for the number four when telling people your address. Renumbering the floor solves this problem for them. Think of it as a very narrow form of the not-uncommon superstition that you should never say aloud the phrase “what if [BAD THING] happens?” because then the universe will cause that bad thing to happen.
        Another example for clarity: there are some communities who believe (fewer now than before, but it was common wisdom at one time) that if you speak the name of the devil aloud, he will be summoned. Now, imagine if his name were “Five”, what that would do for city planning offices. It’s not the numeral that’s the problem, it’s speaking the numeral’s name aloud.

        • The Other Weirdo

          The misfortune doesn’t come at all, not from living on the 4th floor, not saying the 4th floor. This is an imaginary problem, like prayer that produces hail instead of rain.

        • Kodie

          It’s an effect of marketing psychology. People associate certain words with health or home, and other positive things, and are put off by the names of brands if they remind them of things like vomit or disease. I can’t think of anything right now but Ayds diet pills. I don’t know if Christians wear satin. I tried looking it up because I do think there is another term for the fabric that avoids any accidental summoning of the devil. People still buy Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners but I’m sure there are people who avoid that brand just because of the name. It depends on the product and who your consumer demographic is, since, for example, beers and hot sauces are often named things that are intentionally disgusting or dangerous sounding, and that only adds to the appeal, while you wouldn’t name a cake mix or a brand of canned vegetables anything that sounded like it could kill you.

          In English, the number 4 sounds like ‘for’ or even ‘fore’. If the word “four” was called “termite” instead, English-speaking people might not want to live in that house either, even if it was made of brick or steel.

        • Jeff See

          So they realize it’s the 4th floor. In their mind, they know it. They don’t speak it, they call it something else. This, is the fabrication that I am referring to. They know it’s black. They’re calling it white. In order to call it white, in their mind, they have to make the conscious decision to lie, even if it’s only to themselves, and they realize this. The fact that they fear black’s name, may be the reason for the lie, but it doesn’t mean it’s not a lie, a fabrication different from the truth.

  • Friendly_Autist

    They’ve got a good point. We should change the word for people who can’t hear because similar fricatives frighten me.

  • Lee Miller

    I don’t like the number 3 because the whole “Trinity” thing creeps me out, therefore I think it should be eliminated. Even in counting. 1 2 5 6 7 (well, maybe 7 should go too) 8 9 10 11 12 (no good because of the 12 disciples). Clearly mathematics needs an overhaul on the basis of my irrational belief system.

  • Nikita

    Wow… my hometown made your site. Awesome.

  • Bob Becker

    Hell, guys, the U.S. changed the highway number of U.S. highway 666 (in Colorado and New Mexico) because it had become known as “the Devil’s highway” and the 666 designation was keeping tourists away from businesses along it. No, I am NOT making this up.

    • Nilanka15

      Don’t forget that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were re-named Tampa Bay Rays…

  • helen sotiriadis

    here you go… evidence!
    i lived in beijing for a while, and my building didn’t have floors 4, 14 and 24 — and also 13, for westerners…

  • JapanParent

    I’m living in Japan, and I want to point something else out.

    This isn’t just superstition. This is also manners. See, “shi-ney” 死ね is the Japanese equivalent of “Go fuck yourself.” It is a very strong swear word. “Shi” in general is a strong swear word, and just generally rude to say in general. In fact, Japanese people tend to prefer terms like “naku natta” instead of “shinda” to say someone is dead.

    So, yes, being scared of the numeral 4 in itself is stupid, stupid, stupid. And, in fact, as stated below, in Japanese, it is perfectly ok to say “yon” instead of “shi.” So there are other ways to avoid the number 4.

    But I just want to point out for the sake of completeness that it isn’t as simple as 4 = death. It also has a connotation of a strong swearword equivalent to “fuck you.”

    Not that that excuses it. Just wanted to add another data point to the discussion.

    • Compuholic

      This is also manners. See, “shi-ney” 死ね is the Japanese equivalent of “Go fuck yourself.” It is a very strong swear word. “Shi” in general is a strong swear word, and just generally rude to say in general.

      I think I like the idea of my house saying “go fuck yourself” to other people. It sets the right tone for JWs and salespeople who are coming to my door.

      • JET

        A house numbered six-six-six-go fuck yourself, would be way more effective than a ‘no solicitors’ sign.

    • Amakudari

      I haven’t heard 4 associated with 死ね (lit. the command form of “die”). I’d also say it’s more the accompanying attitude than the word itself that’s the “fuck you,” since you can find “shine” in cartoons and games for kids or hear young people say it jokingly to each other without offending elders.

      In any case, I’m pretty sure no one hears or would think “go fuck yourself” when they see a 4 in any context. Given how easy it is to avoid pronouncing 4 that way anyway, I think it’s just an imported custom from China that doesn’t make a whole ton of sense in the Japanese context. Par for the course, in other words.

      • JapanParent

        You are absolutely correct. I just wanted to throw it out there.

        Also, no, 4 isn’t directly connected to “shine,” but “shi” in general is somewhat taboo. All grammatical forms of “shinu” are generally avoided. The word in general is bad, and saying someone is “dead” can be misconstrued as an insult (trust me, I know; I’ve had people tell me to please not say that when playing games with children, because it is a “bad word”).

        And, yes, it is pretty much just an imported custom from China.

  • sware73

    Even if it does sound like death *gasp* I just don’t get it. Why exert so much fear and energy to such degree over that thing from which none of us are immune? Death comes to everyone sooner or later.

    • Whirlwitch

      My understanding is it doesn’t sound like the word “death”, but like the word “die”. So in telling people your address, you would be saying “die” to them, which is taken as ill-wishing.

  • Dave The Sandman

    In related news, after an application by fans of the Discworld novels The Young Men’s Reformed-Cultists-of-the-Ichor-God Bel-Shamharoth Association, Richmond Hill Town Council are now considering banning the use of the number 8, for as stated in the petition “8 is the cursed number of the demon god Bel-Shamharoth”.

    • Whirlwitch

      Liar. Actual text was “the whole number between 7 and 9 is the cursed number of the demon god Bel-Shamharoth”.

      • Dave The Sandman

        In an update to the story the offices of the Richmond Hill Reporter have today been found wrecked and covered in stinky green ichor. The chief editor is reported missing.

        Mr D McLeroy, representative of The Young Men’s Reformed-Cultists-of-the-Ichor-God Bel-Shamharoth Association, was quoted as saying “See. We told you not to say the number.”

  • Christian Kemp

    Living in Korea, I find they get around it the easy way. its floors 1,2,3,F,5,6,7. So they eliminate the number 4 with the first Roman alphabet letter F. Funny thing is then you are only fooling yourself and you always will be.

    The whole superstition is just about making people feel better I guess, and that they don’t have to say a word that sounds familiar to death.

  • DougI

    What’s next, are they going to ban white eggs because white is the color of death in China? Such lunacy.

  • PA_Year_of_the_Bible

    If they can accommodate the fears of the Chinese, they can accommodate the desires of atheists by marketing the “4″ homes to atheists, who will end up saving $25-35,000.

    • baal

      Your point remains but too many (like half) of the atheists I’ve met in the flesh world have some sort of supernaturalist belief (ghosts or cracks or salt spills etc). I’ve even taken to explaining that I’m not just an atheist but also throw out all supernatural causes (no one has ever been wrong in fact for saying whatever happened it wasn’t a supernatural agent).

      • Anna

        I remember we had a post about one of the girls from MTV’s Teen Mom who came out as an atheist, but the same girl also went with her boyfriend to visit a psychic and sincerely believed what she was told there. It’s true that because someone identifies as an atheist doesn’t mean that they’re a skeptic or a materialist. I’m not sure how much Western atheists really have in common with Chinese ones.

    • marzipanpieplate

      Well, most Chinese people are atheists. They’re just traditionally very superstitious.

      Also, the reverse sometimes occurs in the housing market in predominantly Asian communities. Houses with “lucky” numbers will sometimes go into bidding wars and be sold at a ridiculously inflated price. That $25-35,000 the agents are grumbling about is probably already above market value, and not really a loss.

      Further complicating the issue, the Toronto area has recently had a lot of foreign real estate investors, many from Asia. Developers are keen to get their money.

    • Nilanka15

      Evan atheists need to sell their house at some point ;)

  • 7Footpiper

    It’s worth pointing out that Richmond Hill is almost exclusively Chinese so while it is stupid superstition I don’t see any real inconvenience caused to anyone else by not having the number 4. I think adding a suffix is also lying to yourself.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Ah, Richmond, the Chinese capital of Canada. One of them, anyway. I think when you emigrate to another country, you should allow your old superstitions to die away. That will leave more room for you to absorb the superstitions of your new home.

    • kaydenpat

      Canada is very multicultural so this is not surprising to me. I wonder if Canadian Muslims are allowed to practice Sharia law.

  • Sids

    I’m living in China. In apartment block 4. Clearly reading this story is a part of the bad luck that is undoubtably meant to be coming my way. Since this is all about me, I regret to inform you that both you and the entire town of Richmond Hill are just pawns in my solipsistic game of fortune.

  • ortcutt

    Why don’t they change the word for “four” in Cantonese and Mandarin so it doesn’t sound like “death”? That seems like a much simpler solution to this problem.

    • Sids

      Then they would just find some other word that sounds similar to a word that has negative connotations. If someone wants to be superstitious they will find things to be bothered by.

  • Greg G.

    This is very disconcerting to me because 4 is my lucky number. Maybe they could ban the number 2 because it also is a homonym for a preposition.

    I know Asian-born people who are delighted to have a phone number with ant least one 8 in it. My favorite Chinese take-out has three consecutive 8′s. I’ve been to sa few Pho 88 restaurants across the country. Why not just number all the houses as 8?

    I’m used to seeing tall buildings in the US with no 13th floor. I was delighted to vist an apartment on the 13th floor of a building in Saigon.

    • Sids

      But did that appartment building have a 4th floor? If not, then may have actually been the 12th floor.

      • Greg G.

        Yes, it had all the numbers to the top, about 17 floors.

        i have limited knowledge of Vietnamese but I think the word for 4 sounds like the word for “rice noodles” so there’s a Flying Spaghetti Monster connection.

        They have their own superstitions, though. Taxi drivers sometimes seem offended if you wear the seat belt as if you distrust their driving ability and the Buddha or Virgin Mary doll on the dashboard.

        When we were looking at houses, my wife rejected several for feng shui reasons – the front door faced the wrong direction, there was a straight path from the front door to the back door, it was at the end of the street… I quit asking. Another friend put in feng shui modifications in his restaurant because “it’s just common sense.”

        • wmdkitty

          Odd. You’re supposed to have the front and back doors lined up to accommodate the Fair Folk…

  • Rain

    I tend to look at these type of situations like this: What if Sean Connery said he wanted to sit down by the shore. Because of his famous accent it would sound like he was saying he wanted to “shit down by the shore”. Nobody would know what the hell he was talking about. Also the famous “ship my pants” K-Mart commercial. Nobody ever knew what the hell those people were saying.

    • baal

      My mother’s Boston accent does interesting things to the word “fork”. As a child, I used to open ‘draws’ (drawer) and put on my shots (shorts) when it was warm out. I didn’t have the accent so much as thought those were the right words to use.

      • onamission5

        Heh, born and raised locals where I live get their clothes out of “chester draws” all the time, they eat their cereal out of “bows,” the light at the top of a lighthouse is called a “bacon,” and the classified ads are filled with items “for sell” that need to “sail/sale” immediately.
        I used to feel all snarky and superior until my spouse pointed out to me that I “but’in” my shirt when I am getting “drassed” to leave the “haowse” and “supposably” that means I can’t giggle at other people’s regional pronunciations. :P

    • PhiloKGB

      A stand-up comedian whose name escapes me joked about his Brooklyn high school history teacher’s lesson about the Falkland Islands.

  • DesertSun59

    The name Seth rhymes with Meth and death. Both of which are bad. So, starting now, all people named Seth must affix a suffix onto their name or change it.

    See? Same thing.

  • Paul Little

    So… why does the Chinese language have a word for the number four?

    • Katherine Lorraine

      All languages have a word for the number four…
      Ours is “four.”

      • Paul Little

        Yes, but, we use our word for the number four. My point is, if no one is willing to say the word for the number four out loud, why does it exist. My further point is, of course, that my point is nonsense. Of course Chinese people say the word for the number four out loud. Frequently, and without reservation. So, how do these kinds of discussions even begin? Ask Texans.

    • Feminerd

      Mandarin is a tonal language- the same word, said different ways, is actually different words. So the word for ’4′ and the word for ‘death’ sound very similar and can be mispronounced one for the other.

  • Sarah

    Maybe they should just start using a different word for 4? If they have that much of a problem with the one that has currently been chosen, it seems like the reasonable thing to do…

  • Artor

    I guess they should ban the number nine, since it sounds like German for “No.” (and reminds people of Yoko Ono) And number two, since that is a euphemism for poop. And six sounds too much like “sex.” And people might think the number eight means that a cannibal “ate” someone’s face off there! ZOMG!!! Ban ALL the numbers!!!

    • Katherine Hompes

      Hell, in New Zealand, 6 is actually pronounced “sex”

  • Thalfon

    See, I thought this kind of made sense in hospitals, where nobody would want to be in a hospital room whose name was a homonym of “room death.” That sort of thing would screw with the patient’s head, so you don’t use the number there.

    But to take it to this level is absurd.

  • Hat Stealer

    I hate math. Therefore abolish all the numbers.

    I hate English too. Which means you can’t order them by letters.

    In fact, the only sort of grouping system that I’ll allow is perfectly painted frescoes of my own beautiful face, with slight variation in facial features which allow people to distinguish between their condo and someone else’s.

    I’ve sent a letter suggesting this to Richmond Hill Town Council. I’m still waiting for them to get back to me.

    • sk3ptik0n

      I wouldn’t hold my breath :)

  • Foxhole Atheist

    I wonder if anyone has examine the correlation between religious belief and other forms of superstitious belief? I once had a fellow scientist colleague of mine, who is a church-going Catholic, tell me that he couldn’t do something on the 13th day of the month (forgot what it was) because 13 was bad luck!! Fascinating that a trained scientist can hold such superstitions (but then again the head of NIH is a born again)..I have a business in the Richmond Hill area, and the Asian population is quite religious. So i am curious if there is any evidence of a strong correlation btw religious belief and other superstitions.

  • Mick

    Home of the Brave

    Those FOUR words should be replaced with something closer to the truth; maybe “Home of the really shit scared”

    • Rhino1515

      I don’t believe Canada uses the phrase “Home of the Brave” to describe itself, Mick. That’s a US motto. I think you’ve got the wrong country in mind.

  • Sunny Day

    Prime numbers are of the Devil!

  • Frazzah

    Next we should remove number 4 from all mathbooks and calculators. Well done.

  • Leonard Kirk

    Just hope that no one needs the help of the Fantastic Four in Richmond Hill. They’ll totally shit themselves when they see the flare signal.

  • Tait

    I work in a bunch of these buildings. No 4, 13, 14, 24. Its pretty funny. Not really anything to get worked up about.
    Funnier still is that I lived in two different 4th floor apartments in Taiwan and never once noticed a building with a missing 4th floor in the six years I lived there.

  • Katherine Hompes

    Yanno, 13 is my favourite number- I’d want to live at no. 13

  • MariaO

    I was very surprised that the apocalyptians never freaked out about 1998 – after all what can be scarier than year 3×666? But I guess you should not expect that much math in that quarter…

  • Rhino1515

    Stumbled on an episode of HGTV’s Property Brothers last night and watched it during dinner. This particular episode (as are many others on that network) was filmed in/near Toronto.
    The couple choosing a house in the show couldn’t have a 4 in their address. The home couldn’t be on a T-intersection. The bed couldn’t directly face the bedroom door. No mirrors could face the bed.
    I get this may have been exaggerated for TV. But COME ON! You don’t live in deep rural China in the 13th century — you’re in 21st century Canada! Use some d@mn logic in your life and drop the crippling superstitions! (The same goes for Westerners and their irrational fear of 13.)