Photos By Grace Keohane
If someone were to drop you into the middle of the Classical Chinese Garden, it would be hard to tell just where you are, or what year it is.
You would study your surroundings for clues: hundreds of plants and flower species, serpentine walkways, open colonnades, a bridged lake, a teahouse. You would doubtlessly employ your five senses in solving the mystery, and note the dazzling displays of ancient craftsmanship; you might walk the mosaic stone paths and run your hands along the smooth bamboo shoots. You would listen to the eerie sounds of the mandolins and the distant resounding bongs. Or you could follow the sweet aroma of boiling tea and sip in silent contemplation.
If your observations were astute you would probably place yourself in a Garden in Suzhou, China during the Ming dynasty, somewhere in the 1300s. But suddenly your cell phone starts beeping – you’ve guessed wrong. The year is 2002. And you’re not in China, but in downtown Portland, Oregon.
However, most visitors to the Chinese Garden do not arrive blindfolded, and they tend to use the front gate instead of dropping in to the middle of the trees. They come quiet and willingly, over 250,000 annually, drawn by beauty, tranquility and the chance to glimpse a sliver of ancient China.
Stepping off a city sidewalk into the lush ancient paradise is downright surreal. The abrupt cultural change isn’t so much a shock as it is like slipping into a warm bath. The Garden restores city-worn senses. Located in downtown Portland in the heart of Chinatown, the Garden is a refuge from the hectic pace of urban life. Traffic, technology and timelines seem to fade in importance as you absorb the serene atmosphere.
This Chinese Garden also gives visitors a unique look at a different culture. “It’s an inexpensive way to experience another culture… it’s much cheaper than flying to China!” said the Garden’s Executive Director, Gloria Lee. “It provides people with a global perspective.”
“Besides,” she beamed, “there’s nothing like it anywhere around.”
Lee also credits the Garden for helping the community. She says the Garden serves as “inspiration for the renovation of Portland’s Chinatown.” The Garden is also a venue for local events and has boosted tourism for the city as a whole.
The Garden resulted from Portland’s sister-city status with Suzhou, China, a relationship which was formed in 1985. In 1989, the Classical Chinese Garden Society was formed, with the chief goal of creating a Suzhou-style garden in the heart of downtown Portland. On September 14, 2000, the dream was realized: the Chinese Garden opened to the public. In exchange, the Society also helped create a Portland-trademark Rose Garden in the city of Suzhou.
Layout & Construction
The Garden spans an entire city block and occupies 40,000 square feet. It has an 8,000 square-foot lake and 10,000 square feet of landscaping, 9 pavilions, a teahouse and a souvenir shop.
The Garden was built in an effort that included artisans and designers from Suzhou working side-by-side with Americans. Consulting a 400-year-old manual, they used hand tools and materials shipped from Suzhou, to construct the Garden in 10 months.
The foliage of the Garden is truly breathtaking. But in Chinese tradition nature is not only for aesthetic inspiration, it is essential for the nurture of the intellect and spirit as well. Every aspect of the Garden is rich with meaning. And there’s no shortage of inspiration.
The Garden features approximately 500 plant species and forms. Almost all the plants are indigenous to Southeast China. Many are from the actual gardens in Suzhou. The plants are designed to reveal themselves at varying intervals throughout the seasons, blooming and producing fruit at different times; ensuring, as the brochure boasts, that the garden is “never twice the same.”
Carvings in the 9 pavilions are very ornate and every detail of their construction is symbolic. The pavilions share common traits like sweeping rooflines and bat tiles. The sweeping roofline suggests a phoenix is about to descend, and the curved ends, called flying swallow eves, are believed to ward off evil spirits. Five stylized bats on the clay roofs signify five Chinese blessings: love of virtue, long life, health, wealth and easy death.
Stones & Rockery
Inside the entrance a beautiful stone walkway winds with effortless grace between plants and pavilions. But it was born with sweat and dogged determination. It took 2 Chinese workers thousands of hours on their hands and knees to create the walkway. They hand-placed each stone to create the dazzling mosaic pattern.
The freestanding rocks are called Tai Hu. These limestone structures are prized for 4 virtues: holes that allow chi (life force) to flow freely; coarse texture; slenderness; and top-heavy weight distribution. To ensure authenticity, 500 tons of rock were shipped from Lake Tai, a freshwater lake near Suzhou.
Poetry is an essential part of a Chinese Garden. All through the Garden poems, sayings and literary allusions are inscribed on rocks, plaques and gates. This tradition traces back to early Suzhou gardens, which were typically attached to the homes of retired civil servants who pursued scholarly and philosophical interests. Builders of the Gardens were often among the best-educated in China.
Rock inscriptions are always short and appear horizontally or vertically, depending on the shape of the rock. Couplets appear vertically on the sides of entryways. Lintel inscriptions appear above doors and windows.
Portland’s Chinese Garden is a sensory banquet. Majestic architecture, soothing sounds and flourishing plants envelope the senses and fill the mind with serenity. It’s ideal for the person wanting to unwind and escape the pressures and stresses of our increasingly complex world. But the Garden is much more; it also provides visitors with the unique experience of literally walking into another culture, from another time, and taking a look around. Now that’s an experience!
Portland Classical Chinese Garden
Location: NW 3rd & Everett, Portland, OR. 97208
Chinese Society Page: www.portlandchinesegarden.org
Children under 5: Free
Free, every day at noon & 1 p.m.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our North America Insiders page.