Chi Lin Nunnery 志蓮淨苑, Hong Kong

Reading time 12 minutes


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.


The outermost courtyard is known as the Lotus Courtyard


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.


Ancient meets modern on the slopes of Diamond Hill


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 buildings at Chi Lin are constructed entirely without nails or screws
Fascinating, spine-like, downpipes channel rainwater from the temple’s roof. They are made up of separate components and are entirely flexible


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, in front of the main temple hall
A quiet cloister shades the temple’s golden Buddhas from the sun
The magnificent, bronze Lamp of Wisdom


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.


Cloud-pruned Buddhist pines in a minaturised landscape of rock and grass
Both Buddhist pine (Podocarpus macrophyllus) and horsetail pine (Pinus massoniana) are native to Hong Kong and grow wild in the hills surrounding the city
Composition is everything in this precisely contrived evocation of natural beauty


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.


Colourful lotus plants enjoy bright conditions and clear water
An especially attractive ‘lotus’ (actually a waterlily) with intense carmine flowers and bronzy-red leaves


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


Podocarpus macrophyllus (Buddhist Pine)
Platycladus orientalis (Chinese arborvitae, Chinese thuja)
Bougainvillea spectabilis (bougainvillea)
Pinus massoniana (horsetail pine, Chinese red pine)
Murraya exotica (orange jasmine)
Ficus microcarpa var. crassifolia (green mound fig)
Carmona microphylla (Fukien tea)


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.


The Lotus Courtyard







Categories: Container gardening, Flowers, Foliage, Large Gardens, Musings, Parks, Photography, Plants, Travel, Tropical Gardens

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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28 comments On "Chi Lin Nunnery 志蓮淨苑, Hong Kong"

  1. Thank you for a post giving a window onto a style of garden [and a place] I knew nothing about!

    Translation does odd things though. The water lilies are just that – Nymphaea forms [admittedly the ‘blue lotus of the Nile’ is one of these]. ‘Oriental Lotus’ [Nelumbo nucifera] holds its main leaves above the water and has a different flower structure.

    I trust you are safely home now?


    1. I am, thank you. Battling the jet lag! Yes, aware they are waterlilies to us, but waterlillies seem to be refered to to as ‘lotus’ generally here. And perhaps the ponds once did have lotuses in them rather than waterlilies. Who knows? Lovely all the same!

  2. A wonderful post, which I read as a generous gift to garden-lovers who, like me, don’t have the means to travel. Thank you !

    1. My pleasure. I know I am very lucky to travel, even if it is mainly for work purposes these days. Squeezing in little experiences like these makes me feel very fortunate. Being able to share them here is even more rewarding.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this and all your images. I lived in Hongkong from 1974-1984 and never knew about the nunnery, though I suppose it was rather different then. I’ve never been back but now I want to!

    1. You’d notice the changes for sure. Every time I visit there are more buildings and new roads. The old airport has finally been demolished and is now a huge building site. It will be interesting to see what goes up there when I go back in 2018. I hope you do get the opportunity to return.

    1. I could not believe how relaxing the tea ceremony was. And I really enjoyed the tea as well. I was one of only two people in the tea house, but the queue for the vegetarian restaurant was very long. Perhaps when you have finished organising your library you can give youself a little treat and visit. I think you’d appreciate it.

  4. This is a blissful post, thank you so much for sharing this beautiful garden with us, what a joy it is to be allowed to share your enjoyment.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing such wonderful photos and insights into plants and gardens on your travels when you are obviously very busy. Safe journey home.

  6. Dearest Dan…what a magical post.❤️ So informative, so beautifully written and some wonderful pics. Love the bonsai pics, truly lovely. After so many years of travelling several times a year to HK I am so ashamed that I have never made the effort to visit this wonderful location. It will be on my to do list for next year. Thx so much for sharing. So wish I had been in HK in 28th and we could have gone together. Your generosity in taking the time to write these detailed posts and share with others is really appreciated. Thank you. H x

    1. It’s my pleasure Helen. I would not feel too bad about not visiting the nunnery considering most people in Hong Kong haven’t either! However, it’s a very restful and interesting diversion if you ever have some free time, which I know is rare. There is an excellent shop in Nan Liam gardens which is full of all the lovely things I know must exist in China but never see for sale anywhere. Mainly ceramics but also silks and jewellery. I bought a covered pot, but don’t tell anyone, least of all my bank manager!

  7. SPENDING!!!!! naughty naughty….. I was very good in China, not very good in India. I am definitely putting this on my list next time I go to HK – plants, tea and shopping altogether yeah! only think missing is the chardi. xx

  8. What a lovely garden — I visited HK a few times and lived in China for a year in college, but I never saw many gardens, and certainly none as beautiful as this one. Thanks so much for sharing it with us so we can be armchair garden visitors! Best, -Beth

  9. Thank you for such a superb article….I’ve linked it with my photo on flickr, as I appropriated some of your information and wanted to indicate where it came from.

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