Review: Lan Yuan: A Garden of Distant Longing

Review: James Beattie and Duncan Campbell with Wynstan Cooper (Images) and Sue Wootton (Poetry). Lan Yuan: A Garden of Distant Longing (Dunedin: Dunedin Chinese Gardens Trust and Shanghai Museum, 2013). 112 pp. ISBN 978-0-473-25799-6. NZ$29.99 paperback.1

Elizabeth Kenworthy Teather2

Lan Yuan, Dunedin’s exquisite Chinese Garden, was opened to the public in 2008. Its English name, unrelated to the Chinese name, is Garden of Distant Longing, but it seems that Dunedinites just call it the Chinese Garden. Twenty years earlier, in 1998, Sydney’s Garden of Friendship opened.3 This is the only comparable garden in Australasia, possibly in the Southern Hemisphere. The two cities are very different. Sydney sees itself as the pulsing heart of an extrovert nation. Dunedin, far smaller, still wears remnants of its reserved Presbyterian origins, and is regarded by most New Zealanders as remote from the centre of the action.

How it came about that Dunedin acquired this cultural gem, unobtrusively located between a shopping precinct and the newly refurbished Toitu Otago Settlers Museum, is quite a story, and it makes for a fascinating read in Beattie and Campbell’s recent book. James Ng’s ‘Foreword’ explains that, following a successful celebration of China Week in 1998, during the 150th anniversary celebrations of Otago’s planned settlement, Otago’s China Week Committee offered to gift a southern Chinese garden to the city. The garden was intended to be an enduring commemoration of the early Chinese in Otago. The first of this book’s three chapters, ‘Origins’, tells how events unfolded.

Dunedin is twinned with Shanghai, so it made sense for members of the newly established Dunedin Chinese Gardens Trust to visit Shanghai to see that city’s famous historic gardens. Mutual understanding and enthusiasm culminated in outstandingly generous contributions from individuals and institutions in Shanghai that made this project achievable. Thus it came about that a Chinese Garden commemorating Cantonese miners and settlers in Otago came to be designed, and its building supervised, by Mandarin speakers from Shanghai. The closest city to the original home of Otago’s Chinese is Guangzhou, a city with no comparable tradition of garden design, but which had been involved in the creation of Sydney’s Chinese Garden.

It is appropriate that ‘Origins’ begins with a short account of the invitation that brought Chinese goldminers to Otago in 1865. It also describes the later immigration of men, and some women, who became, in the large, laundrymen and market gardeners. Photographs, some grainy and needing resort to a magnifying glass but well worth it, bring to life the contrast between the fertile low-lying environment the Cantonese villagers left, and the raw majesty of Central Otago. I was unaware of the enthusiastic response of Chinese market gardeners to Prime Minister Fraser’s appeal to them during the Second World War to ensure the country’s supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, something that surely contributed to the post-war improvements in their acceptance as legitimate New Zealanders.

Having briskly dealt with Lan Yuan’s origins, the authors present the nuts and bolts of the project in some detail in the remaining two chapters, ‘Construction’ and ‘Design’. These are supplemented by five Appendices. Appendix 3 shows in diagram form how the Trust and the Shanghai Museum established a working structure for the project. A set of photographs of every Chinese craftsman employed on the project follows in Appendix 4. These two Appendices are testament to the warm and efficient collaboration that appears to have taken place between all parties concerned, and the photographs are a tribute to the superb traditional craftsmanship involved.

The ‘Construction’ chapter gives an account of the site preparation, prefabrication in Shanghai and subsequent building of Lan Yuan, and it also explains the traditions behind the way the elements of Lan Yuan were developed into a design appropriate for a small site. The Chinese had worked out the principles of ‘Modular Construction’ many centuries ago. Buildings needed to be in proportion to one another and to the garden elements. Once their scale was determined, the traditional dimensions could be worked out, down to the size of every window. ‘No nails were used to build Lan Yuan’ (p. 41) and when the prefabricated components were brought to Dunedin, they were found to fit together perfectly – as, of course, the craftsmen knew they would. A series of photographs by Adrian Thein illustrates the process of construction, including the ‘Rock Mountain’ with its 970 tonnes of limestone rock sitting on six metres of fill (the water table is only two metres below the surface).

Three key texts on the design of Chinese Gardens were discussed in Chapter 2 (pp. 35-36). In Chapter 3, ‘Design’, the authors point out that ‘Chinese private gardens are more about architecture than horticulture; more about rocks than plants’ (p. 66). Thus, the placing of hard structures precedes that of plants. The authors also go into some detail about the several principles of contrast that Chinese Garden designers exploit, and how they are built into the design of Lan Yuan. Appendix 2 summarises, with a map, the plantings as at 2012.

Featured in Chapter 3 are the poems of Sue Wootton, meditative weavings of words inspired by the many elements of a garden that stimulate the senses and trigger associations. ‘Stepping across Zig Zag bridge’ is followed by an explanation of how she constructed the sequence of ten couplets, incorporating the design contrasts of, for example, straightness/curvature, movement/stasis. But I particularly enjoyed ‘Pouring tea in steady rain with a steady hand’ with its metaphor of the tea as a ‘new green lake’.

This is a beautiful and businesslike book. It glories in photographs by Wynton Cooper, some of which clarify points made in the text. Others are simply breathtaking. Readers who want to delve into the bibliography of Chinese Gardens are provided with useful further reading. Missing is a reference to Tung Chuin, mentioned in the opening paragraph of the Introduction as a ‘great garden historian’ (p. 13), but resort to the web will bring up a translation of Tung Chuin’s work by none other than Duncan Campbell.

The authors have anticipated most questions that visitors to Lan Yuan might have. They explain the ‘Lan’ in the garden’s Chinese name but forget to point out that ‘Yuan’ means ‘garden’. I appreciated their translations, in Appendix 5, of the various inscriptions and couplets installed throughout Lan Yuan, and hope that they are available for those going round the garden. This was not the case on my first visit some years ago. It seems that the two characters for Lan Yuan are transposed on the Pailou. I wonder why, and also whose calligraphy is the model here. I am also puzzled that the first book inspired by Lan Yuan (Beattie, 2008) gave the Garden’s English name as ‘Garden of Enlightenment’ rather than the current ‘Garden of Distant Longing’, which encapsulates the sense of loss of connection to the Motherland felt by expatriate Chinese.

How has Lan Yuan been accepted by Dunedin’s citizens as ‘their’ garden? The ongoing costs are a controversial issue, and are under debate by the City Council as I write this review (“Delay Changes, Garden Manager Says”, Otago Daily Times May 19, 2014). Marketing Lan Yuan as a thirty-minute stop on a tourist itinerary may bring in some dollars, but Dunedin’s garden lacks the fortuitous location of Sydney’s Chinese Garden located near the tourist hub of Darling Harbour and close to humming Chinatown. Dunedin is not an international tourist hub, and few overseas visitors to New Zealand will yet have heard of Lan Yuan. When I mentioned Lan Yuan to a hundred or so people attending a talk on Suzhou’s gardens in Canberra recently, not one had heard of it.

With its roots in Otago’s history and the commitment of Dunedin’s long-established Chinese citizens, Lan Yuan’s primary appeal should be to the city’s residents, rather than to tourists. Being in such a garden is meant to be a regular and integral part of one’s life. This raises the intriguing question of how a garden modelled on a private space can best operate as a public space. It isn’t as if a group of local citizens can readily drop into ‘their’ garden on an invitation or a whim ‘to marvel at the reflection of the moon, to drink, compose poetry and paint’ (p. 75). The celebrations of auspicious festivals organised by the Trust are civic events and can’t replace gatherings of family and friends, sipping wine and waiting for the muse to descend (or just strumming an instrument, dozing or gossiping). Do Dunedinites have the opportunity to make space in their lives, to join the ‘Slow’ movement, and learn to savour their hours in the delightful surroundings of Lan Yuan? This book captures the first years of Lan Yuan superbly. But longer-term success will need continuing outreach to convince Dunedin citizens to take to their hearts this tiny, jewelled fragment of a culture that is unfamiliar to most of them.

[1] See also James Beattie (Ed.), Lan Yuan: The Garden of Enlightenment: Essays on the Intellectual, Cultural and Architectural Background to the Dunedin Chinese Garden. (Dunedin: Dunedin Chinese Gardens Trust, c/o Cook, North and Wong, PO Box 867, Dunedin, New Zealand, 2008).

[2] Elizabeth Teather is a retired geographer who lived in Dunedin for ten years. She acknowledges with thanks the help of Margaret Bahr in sending the article in the Otago Daily Times referred to below, as well as other useful material.

[3] Elizabeth has an attractive booklet named Garden of Friendship describing Sydney’s Chinese Garden in some detail, which she bought well over a decade ago. There is no date or author, and the publisher is Mason Stewart Publishing Pty. Ltd., Sydney.