In the bustling vibrant Chinatown district of Vancouver is a magical place of serenity and reflection. Back in January when I was in Vancouver, I noticed a Chinese garden on a map, but it was already closed for the day by time I got there. On a rainy Sunday morning before boarding a cruise ship in July, I got a chance to visit Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Turns out, the light misty made the visit extra special. I didn’t know it before my visit, but this was the first full-scale scholar’s garden constructed outside of China. It is modeled after the elite private classical gardens in Suzhou during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and represents the apogee of Chinese architecture, philosophy, art and calligraphy. Using Ming Dynasty building techniques means no nails, screws or glue were used. It took thirteen months for a team of 53 experts from Suzhou to construct the garden working with Vancouver architecture Joe Wai and landscape architecture Don Vaughn. From the hand-fired roof tiles to courtyard pebbles, most of the architectural components were shipped from China. It opened in 1986 and in 2004, a $1.9 million new wing featuring the “Hall of One Hundred Rivers” was added. The garden’s name pays homage to the man considered the father of modern China.
As our group of seven entered the China Maple Hall it was as if a zen spell had been cast over us. We didn’t have long to visit but our frantic pace suddenly slowed as we entered the formal reception hall where a scholar would have received his guests. It instantly felt like we had stepped into a secret garden. In the hall is a double-sided Suzhou silk embroidery and naturally stained nan wood pillars which are rare. A tidbit I found interesting – the scent of the camphor rafters helps repel bugs. From the hall, each of us went in different directions being drawn to intricate features of the garden capturing our attention.
The Daoist philosophy of yin and yang is pivotal to a classical Chinese garden. Light is balanced by dark as seen in the black roof tiles against the white walls in the main courtyard. There’s the juxtaposition of soft and hard with the pliable bamboo shoots paired with stone shoots. Even the changing hand-laid pebbled patterns in the courtyard tell the tale of balanced opposites of smooth and rugged blending harmoniously.
The focal point of the garden is the ting, a colorful pavilion perched on a pile of weathered rocks. It’s to emulate a mountain and represents humans in the space between heaven and earth.
As I walked towards the Scholar’s Study, I noticed a few people walking along a boardwalk on the opposite side of the main courtyard that seemed to appear and disappear. The Double Corridor was designed in a zigzag pattern so the entire path wouldn’t be seen in a yin and yang of hidden and revealed.
You can’t help but notice the cloudiness to the jade green water. It’s intentional to intensify reflections. On a drizzly day the reflection of the Jade Water Pavilion with its lattice-framed windows and balustrades is even more spectacular. A special clay liner creates the opaque color of jade, the favorite Chinese gemstone symbolizing wealth and purity. There are two wooden screens with delicate designs of plums, orchids, bamboo and chrysanthemums. Following Daoist yin and yang philosophy, the circular screen represent Heaven and the square one represents Earth.
Somehow how all of use convened at a large window with a spectacular framed view of the garden. The Lookout and South Courtyard was the perfect spot for us to take pictures. It was also a wonderful viewpoint to take in a few key features of the garden like the trees, rocks and windows. The penjing trees are the forefather of Bonsai trees. They have been an art in China for over a thousand years. The Tai Hu Rocks are shaped stones from Lake Tai in China. The naturally formed limestone sculptures are rare. There is a “seahorse stone” in the Main Courtyard. Look closely and you’ll see all sorts of figures as the sculptures change with light and from different angles. There are 43 leak windows in the garden. Each one leaks in air, light, breeze and views, but each is different in design.
Getting short on time I headed into the Scholar’s Courtyard and Study. In this space considered the most serene part of the garden, the scholar would have read, written poetry, studied music or painted. The “three friends of winter” – bamboo symbolizing resilience, pine for strength and winter-flowering plum for rebirth and renewal – are behind the study’s northern wall. In the courtyard is a great view of the terracota rooftiles that were fired in the Imperial Kilns in China. In the overhanging drip tiles are two important symbols. The character shou respresents long life and is flanked by two bats, symbolizing good luck. I didn’t know until this visit that bats are traditional Chinese good luck symbols. In the garden they are in the tiles, floor and window patterns as well as some door-pulls. There was also a vintage bike used as a planter that I just loved.
Our one hour visit flew by. As I sipped jasmine tea while exploring the exhibitions in the “Hall of One Hundred Rivers,” I was wishing for a little more time in this oasis of serenity.