Three cheers for British Airways! Why? Because without them charging £1000 more to travel on a Friday night versus a Saturday night, I would not have been able to enjoy a full day off in Hong Kong. And, thanks to a double dose of good luck, I was upgraded to a very swanky hotel room for my final night in Asia. The previous occupant of the room I was intended to have left a very strong cigarette odour behind them and the management did the right thing, with chocolates and fruit thrown in. God bless them!
It was tempting to cram far too much into my free day, but I controlled myself and stuck to a plan I made over a year ago to visit the Chi Lin Nunnery in Kowloon. Hong Kong isn’t known for gardens, and the city’s few gardens of note are not high up on most tourists’ list of places to see. Many Hongkongers don’t know a lot about Chi Lin and its neighbouring garden, Nan Lian, which I will introduce to you in a separate post. I spoke to one elderly couple from Hong Kong island who were visiting for the first time in their lives: they could not believe what they’d been missing.
First impressions suggest that the enormous Buddhist temple complex on the wooded slopes of Diamond Hill is an ancient one. Chi Lin was initially founded as a retreat for Buddhist nuns in 1934, but re-constructed in the Tang Dynasty style during the 1990s (for those of you less familiar with Chinese history, the Tang Dynasty extended from AD 618 to AD 907). What’s so breathtaking is that the imposing structures, covering a mammoth 360,000 sq ft, were built without using a single nail or screw. An exhibition in Nan Lian Garden demonstrates how, using a devilishly complex system of traditional brackets, the timbers and tiles slot together to complete the world’s largest handmade wooden building. Cypress wood was imported from Canada but the building is proudly Chinese. Even the beautifully honed granite paving, steps and balustrades are devoid of any visible fixings. All in all, quite remarkable.
What makes Chi Lin even more arresting is the juxtaposition of the traditional Tang style with the modern skyscrapers that now dominate Hong Kong’s skyline. The Chinese administration have turned the nunnery and gardens into a vibrant showcase of Chinese art, religion and culture and, I must say, they have done so magnificently. It’s easy to be overcome by the commerce of Hong Kong and the ugliness of Southern China, but at Chi Lin one glimpses why China was, and will be again, one of the greatest civilisations on earth.
The inner and outer courtyards of the nunnery are dominated by cloud-pruned Buddhist pines, Pinus macrophyllus. Buddhist pine is highly prized as a feng shui tree in Hong Kong, making mature specimens extremely valuable. In recent years, the illegal digging of Buddhist pine has become a problem in the city, hence these fine specimens are tagged, microchipped and strapped securely in place. Polite security guards are rarely beyond one’s peripheral vision, ensuring religious etiquette is adhered to and the pines are not interfered with.
The inner courtyard has the Lamp of Wisdom at its heart, representing a light that leads to the right path of life. The bronze centrepiece incorporates seven lotus patterns and twelve birth signs of auspicious animals around the base. The pearl-shaped light on top, and the incense burner inside offer scent and light to the Buddha, day and night. Cloud-pruned trees and the tight sward of grass beneath are picked over constantly by gardeners to maintain immaculate presentation. To create the illusion of greater antiquity, some of the pines’ lower branches are pulled earthward by metal guy ropes.
The more spacious outer courtyard, is divided into four segments, each with a shallow pond fed by water-spouting dragons. The colour of the waterlily blossoms, even on a warm, bright day, was dazzling. I knew the variety of flower shades was diverse, but not how interesting waterlily leaves could also be. There were green ones, red ones, marbled and splashed ones. I very quickly found myself wondering where I might squeeze a lily pond in at home. Futile of course, but a nice idea on a hot sunny day on the other side of the world.
A very fine collection of bonsai is displayed around the edge of the four pools. They must require a lot of expert tending in Hong Kong’s high temperatures and bright sunshine, but I could not find a blemish in sight or a leaf out of place. My only sorrow was that the bonsai bougainvilleas were not in bloom, as they must be quite a spectacle smothered in fuchsia-pink flowers.
Bonsai Species at Chi Lin
A visit to Chi Lin Nunnery is a must for any garden lover passing through Hong Kong. Despite being hemmed in by busy roads and tower blocks, the compound is a haven of peace and tranquility, cooled by breezes coming down from Diamond Hill and beyond. Even on a busy day the nunnery does not feel crowded, but go early if you want solitude and good lighting for photography. The best thing is that entrance is completely free of charge. If you are not keen on steps there are ramps leading to most levels. The website, which also covers Nan Lian Gardens, is entirely in Chinese characters, but if you follow this link and turn the sound up on your computer, you are in for a treat. Hover over the different areas of the garden for a sumptuous visual tour.
Allow yourself an hour for Chi Lin Nunnery and at least another hour to see Nan Lian Gardens as well. I’d recommend making a half day of it, taking lunch in the vegetarian restaurant or enjoying a tea ceremony in the tea house. I did the latter and felt the calmest and most ‘at one’ with myself that I have in many months. Thus restored, I felt perfectly ready to return home. TFG.