Jade Water Pavilion as viewed from park.

Gardening: Re-visiting Sun Yat-Sen

Cultural icon was designed by local architects Joe Wai and Donald Vaughan.

I was enjoying Vancouver’s Chinatown last week after an absence of about five years, doing a little research for my book on the Asian spectrum of edible ornamental plants.

The dried Jujube, Lotus root, Ginkgo seeds, rosebud tea and goji berries were plentiful in the many herbal shops and, as ever, the atmosphere was invigorating – like immersing yourself in another culture without the 12-hour plane trip.

I took a few minutes to visit the public portion of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden just to see how it has fared the park’s board cutbacks so evident in many community spaces and was pleasantly surprised.

First built as an Expo project in 1986 to compliment the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, this cultural icon was designed by local architects Joe Wai and Donald Vaughan.

The garden proper was conceived by architect Wang Zu-Xin and given the benefits of a Suzhou landscape architecture firm, Chinese artisans and construction materials brought in from China (such as the limestone boulders from Lake Tai), in order to create an authentic Ming Dynasty landscape.

The public park had to mimic this grandeur with a much smaller budget using North American materials and local contractors.

Given these restraints, architects Wai and Vaughan did a superb job of mirroring this one-of-a-kind garden space.

I visited both gardens when they first opened and was struck by how austere they were as far as plant material was concerned.

It was obvious that much thought had been given in their choices, as most of the large shrubs or trees were mature specimens with unique characteristics.

However, much more emphasis had been placed on the hard landscape – the pavilion layouts, the texture of the pebbles ingrained in the pathways, the traditional clay roofing tiles and the myriad of views provided by the various gates and screens.

It is even more beautiful with a light dusting of rain or snow, which brings out the colours of the stones and highlights the innumerable pits in the corroded limestone found throughout the landscape.

One of my favourite memories of this garden was being the first person to arrive on a snowy day, with the waters looking like milky jade and the each blade of the Mondo grass perfectly outlined – it was a photographers dream while it lasted (about 10 minutes).

My expectations were much lower this time around as my tour of Chinatown had revealed a marked decline in the old community, with many shuttered shops and obvious development pressure from the surrounding metropolis.

That said, I was pleasantly surprised as I walked through the moon gate that sits behind the bust of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen and was confronted by a garden that had remained relatively unchanged.

The black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) groves had grown somewhat, but were properly thinned, allowing the jet black canes to be perfectly silhouetted by the white stucco walls that enclose this landscape.

The waters, which are shared between the two garden spaces, were still a lovely jade colour and alive with mottled koi of yellow, orange and white – with the central pavilion being enjoyed by both locals and tourists alike.

This consistency of character is really a testament to the original garden design, whose spartan plantings did not overwhelm the many-faceted views in a matter of a few years, in order that successive generations of visitors could admire the same garden, regardless of age or maturity.

That is quite an accomplishment for a 30-year-old garden, one which still stands as the heart of Vancouver’s Chinatown.


– Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author (hebe_acer@hotmail.com).



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