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Bridging East and West: The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden

Anthony Wu

Magazine Issue: Spring/Summer 2023

Patterned floors and taihu rocks at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Photo: The author with permission of the Garden.

IF YOU'VE EVER VISITED VANCOUVER, chances are you passed through its renowned Chinatown. Located at the intersection of Main and East Hastings, two major downtown thoroughfares, this bustling neighbourhood is not only one of North America’s most vibrant Chinatowns but also one of the oldest. It sprung up the 1870s when Chinese immigrants sought opportunities in Canada, then a relatively new country.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Chinese population in the area barely numbered one hundred. But as of 2021, the Chinese diaspora in the city of Vancouver surpassed half a million, making it one of the largest in the Western world. Today’s Chinatown is vastly different from its past, with traditional bakeries, dim sum restaurants, teahouses, and budget supermarkets coexisting with upscale eateries, low-rise luxury condos, and premium shops. Visitors can easily find stores selling traditional Chinese medicine next to modern boutiques featuring the latest smartphone-enabled rice cookers.

Vancouver’s Chinatown is a fascinating blend of East meets West, past and present. Located at its heart, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden 中山公園 epitomizes these contrasts by showcasing historical aesthetics in a modern development.

Completed in 1986, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden takes up over 10,000 square feet of a city block shared with the Chinese Cultural Centre, a group of smaller shops, and a public park, all connected by a central stone courtyard. The project a was a joint venture between the Canadian Government and the People’s Republic of China with the goal to create a beautiful space that would display the heritage of Vancouver’s Chinatown.

The Garden has its roots in the 1960s, when Vancouver was on the cusp of a major transformation. A proposal for a mega eight-lane highway connecting the city’s southern and northern parts would have essentially torn apart Chinatown and other neighborhoods in its path. After years of protests by residents and merchants, as well as public hearings, the city ultimately declined this plan in 1968. This decision laid the foundation for the Vancouver of today, with its emphasis on walking, cycling, and public transit, while preserving the unique identities of its neighborhoods.

The China Maple Hall or Hua Feng Tang at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Photo: The author with permission of the Garden.

The battle to save Chinatown brought a newfound interest in its historical significance. Municipal and community leaders decided to preserve and enhance the neighbourhood’s identity by developing the block that included the Chinese Cultural Centre with the first traditional Ming-style Chinese Garden outside of China. The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden is the first of its kind in North America, with subsequent examples appearing in later years, such as Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden 蘭蘇園 built in 2000.

Local architects Joe Wai and Don Vaughan completed the initial planning for the Garden. Their work included mostly the outer garden and office spaces. Meanwhile, Wang Zu-Xin, in collaboration with the Suzhou Garden Administration, designed the inner area’s Ming-style elements.

For its construction, 53 master-craftsmen from Suzhou 蘇州, a metropolis just west of Shanghai with a history of classical gardens, travelled to Vancouver and stayed in the city for 13 months. This team, which included expert masons, heavy timber carpenters, tilers, painters, architects, and false mountain rockery artisans, brought with them building materials of handmade tiles, stone pebbles, and traditional wood.

The Garden’s namesake is Dr. Sun Yat-Sen 孫中山 (1866- 1925), a celebrated and universally admired figure who is often referred to as the founder of modern China. Dr. Sun was a medical doctor, philosopher, and politician who led the Nationalist Party of China. He visited Vancouver on three separate occasions to seek support for his political party and Revolutionary Alliance. The 1911 Xinhai Revolution 辛亥革命 overthrew the Manchus of the Qing Dynasty, established China as a republic, and paved the way for the country’s modernization. A bronze bust of Dr. Sun in the complex’s courtyard honours his legacy.

The Garden has a square-shaped layout with a central pond and small pavilion. Around these features, maze-like paths lead to various interior and outdoor spaces. These paths are designed with sightlines that are never fully straight. These curves conceal what is around the corner to add an element of surprise to the visitor’s experience.

While there are many notable features of the Garden, a highlight is the Cloudy and Colourful Pavilion. Positioned on a mound of craggy taihu rocks 太湖石 (rocks from Lake Tai), this elevated ting 停is the tallest structure and serves as the focal point of the Garden. The decorative limestone taihu, gathered from the Dongting Mountain 洞庭山, are treasured objects from Suzhou. The taihu rocks used for building the ting's base are also placed throughout the space, establishing the Garden’s Suzhou lineage and their aesthetic appeal functions as a gateway to the idealized Chinese landscape admired for over a thousand years.

The Cloud and Colourful Pavilion, ting, at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Photo: Jeremy Lee with permission of the Garden.

Nature is in abundance at the Garden, with Chinese flora such as magnolia, bamboo, dawn redwood, willow, and gingko, their varieties carefully chosen to survive the Vancouver climate. The greenery attracts local wildlife like turtles and even a resident owl. Mischievous rivers otters made national headlines when they threatened the Garden’s koi fish population in 2018 and 2019.

Throughout the Garden are interesting paving patterns, especially those found near the ting in the Main Courtyard. Rather than using conventional manufactured materials such as interlocking tile or brick, the pavers are hand-laid stones. Of different sizes, colours, and levels of polish, the stones are meticulously laid out, with some positioned flat or at an angle, in a hexagonal brocade pattern.

The Garden's architectural elements are equally intriguing, such as the roof tiles shaped like bats, which are considered a symbol of good fortune in Chinese culture. The windows in its walls and walkways are also thoughtfully designed to frame a tantalizing glimpse through lattice forms of delicate lotus, chrysanthemums, and peony flowers. These distinctive features, coupled with the winding paths, create an illusion of spaciousness.

The Garden has numerous large halls, the main one is the China Maple Hall (Hua Feng Tang) 華楓堂. It was constructed without nails or screws, using the weight (and gravity) of jointed timber in the traditional Ming Dynasty technique for creating a flexible but stable and durable structure. The China Maple Hall also has a traditional ancestral space with seats for elders and an altar table for worship, and the walls display twentieth-century Chinese paintings. Other larger enclosed or partially enclosed spaces are the Scholar’s Study & Courtyard, offices, Eight Treasures Gift Shop, as well as the Hall of One Hundred Rivers & Courtyard.

This last space contains a modern art gallery with seasonal rotating exhibitions that promote Canadian-Chinese artists. During my visit this January, I was able to enjoy the works of contemporary Toronto artist Carson Ting of Charmain Ting Studio. His exhibition Billion Buns (on from January 2023 to March 31, 2023) combined traditional themes of the water rabbit from the Chinese zodiac with whimsical Pop-inspired drawings, graphics, videos, and sculptures. The gallery also includes an education centre for visitors, students of all ages, and larger groups to try their hand at Chinese brush painting and various arts and crafts. Guests can even sample different varieties of Chinese tea in this communal space.

Winding Corridors of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Photo: The Garden.

In addition to visitors who want to enjoy and learn more about Chinese culture, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden serves as a gathering spot for the Chinese diaspora in Vancouver. This purpose was especially relevant during the years of the pandemic, which saw an increase in violence against people of Asian descent. The Garden provides a safe space for these communities to come together and connect with their culture, discuss contemporary issues, and practice the traditional siyi 四藝, or “four arts of the Chinese scholar,” of painting, practicing calligraphy, playing chess, and performing on the stringed qin 琴.

The Garden fulfills all the requisites of a traditional Ming Garden, which historically served as a gathering spot for the literati to discuss culture and politics. While times have changed over the past five hundred years—not too many people may come to the Garden to play their qin 琴—the need for a space to create a community for the Chinese diaspora and those interested in Chinese culture remains essential.

While the Garden has long been a destination for older generations, the introduction of new programming, contemporary art exhibitions, and painting workshops is attracting younger visitors. Social media and word of mouth has also played an integral role in piquing interest in and demand for the Garden, with visitors stopping by for photos (even with traditional costumes) and wedding photos in a bucolic Chinese backdrop. With pandemic restrictions lifted, the Garden continues to serve as a gathering spot for the community, hosting major events like the Lunar New Year and the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival.

Efforts are also being made to improve the safety of the surrounding Chinatown area through increased social and mental health programs, led by major stakeholders such as the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, the Vancouver Chinatown Business Association, and Chinatown Policing Centre.

Today, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is a vital and dynamic cultural space in Vancouver that bridges the past with the present and offers a sanctuary for the Chinese diaspora and visitors alike to immerse themselves in Chinese culture.

With almost twenty years of experience, Anthony Wu is a freelance Asian art consultant, researcher and certified appraiser based in Toronto.


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