Archive for May 14th, 2007

Located on the edge of the downtown eastside, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is one of the hidden wonders of Vancouver. Like the merchants’ gardens it is modeled after, it is meant to be an oasis in the middle of the city. Look up at some of the three or four story buildings around it (mercifully, anything taller is at least a block away), and the sloping tiles on the walls draw your eyes back down to the gardens. It is a place for strolling, of railings designed for leaning over the waters, and strategically positioned red lacquered benches. The gardens impress me on many levels, and I try to visit them several times a year.

One aspect that never ceases to occupy my mind is that the naturalness of their appearance is an illusion. In reality, they are art raised to such a height that they appear completely uncontrived. The limestone rocks, taken from a particular lake in China, are artfully heaped to appear natural, and every bush and tree is positioned for effect. Accidents happen, such as the turtles and the nesting Canada geese or the blue heron that ate the koi in the ponds one year, but very little is left to chance.

In the Imperial Gardens, I understand, every item in the pavilions had a mark on it indicating where it should go, and, while the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen gardens are not quite so rigidly controlled, I am always left smiling and dumbfounded when I consider artistry on such a scale. I have my doubts about feng shui as a form of divination or luck, but, after all my walks through the gardens, I have no doubt whatsoever about feng shui‘s power as an aesthetic theory. The paradox of appearing contrived through every possible contrivance runs through each step of the garden – and it is both absolute and utterly convincing, even with the little I know of the philosophy behind its construction.

One of the main principles, though, is contrast. Whether it’s the difference between the pebbles and the ridges of teacups that form lotuses in some of the paving, the differences between the granite bridges, the slate tiles, and the ceramic ones, the profusion of trees and plants, diversity rules the gardens. It’s a place of winding walks and suddenly changing views, whether through turning a corner, or peering through the diversely patterned frames in the leak windows that line the corridors. It’s a place that brings out new wonders in the rain as opposed to the sun, in the night with the lanterns lit as opposed to the dew of morning or the heat of afternoon.

At every season , too, one plant succeeds another, and new smells and sights are revealed. Inside and outside, too, are blurred by the pavilions whose doors can be thrown open or barred against the cold depending on the season. Look out one window, and you see a stand of plum – outside the one next to it, a pine tree or perhaps a plum.

I could walk the length of the garden in less than two minutes and not be winded, but instead I take hours, meandering in all the possible pathways and retracing my steps over and over. There’s no place you can see the whole of the garden at once, so you have no choice. You have to both slow down and keep moving if you want to see everything.

With so much contrast, choosing a favorite part of the garden is impossible. If I expressed a preference for the grotto in the main part of the garden, where small birds bathe in the waterfall, I’d be leaving out the t’ing, the spirit pavilion that sits high above the rest. If I favored the t’ing, I’d be doing an injustice to the jade waters, through which the koi glide in and out of visibility past the sublimely indifferent turtles sunning themselves on the rocks; put your fingers in the water, and the koi will nibble gently at them, seeking food.

And what about the main pavilion, where on winter days, the cold blends with the scent from the rosewood rafters? The austere tiling of the new pavilion? The round moon gate? The intricately carvings on the open pavilion where you can see the free gardens by looking to one side and the Sun Yat-Sen gardens by looking at another?

Still, if I had to choose, it would be the scholar’s courtyard. As the name implies, the scholar’s courtyard is where the owner of the garden would come to work on his writing or his calligraphy. It features a small pavilion overlooking a courtyard, with a small raised area at the end of the walkway for a musician to serenade the scholar. I always imagine myself at work there, or my late friend Paul Zimmer in a Chinese robe – and, on my visit two days ago, the fantasy became even easier to sustain, because the pavilion is now furnished with a chair, footrest, and a long narrow desk, complete with an inkwell and stand for calligraphy brushes. It’s a place where I could get some clean, honest work done in a state of utter composure.

All too often, though, this fantasy is interrupted by a well-meaning but loud tour guide, or a gaggle of tourists whose lack of appreciation shows in their fast pace or casual conversation. The garden is as much theirs as mine, of course, but I find myself resenting their apparent lack of appreciation, and, when I can, I take care to stay well away from them. If anybody cannot appreciate the gardens enough to give in their atmosphere and slow down or talk in hushed tones, then, so far as I’m concerned, that person is next door to dead. To me, it’s as simple as that.

Still, these intrusions lack power to spoil my pleasure in the gardens. After the first fifteen minutes, I am too relaxed to do more than sigh briefly over their lack of aesthetic judgment and stroll slowly to a less crowded part of the garden. Within a breath, usually, I forget all about them.

No doubt of it: When the gardens have had a chance to work their magic on me, I am calmer, less opinionated person, and nothing can really disturb me while I’m there, or for hours afterwards. The gardens do me good, and, if I lived closer, I would visit weekly or even daily. I’m sure that I’d always emerge refreshed.

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