“A classical garden in a modern city. serenity in the midst of urban hustle and bustle. Ingenious imitation of nature by man”
The English language printed guide for Nan Lian Garden is so interesting and comprehensive that I was almost tempted to repeat the text word-for-word rather than describe this lovely place in my own words. What is evident from the narrow, fold-out leaflet is that the government of Hong Kong is very proud of the garden it commissioned in 2003, and which opened to the public in 2006. So proud indeed, that they have already applied to have Nan Lian Garden and neighbouring Chi Lin Nunnery recognised as a World Heritage Site. I wish them well with that, although I suspect both attractions lack sufficient antiquity to make them a priority for protection. Nevertheless they have much to offer locals and visitors alike.
‘New’ as they are (Chi Lin dates back no further than 1934), both sites have an air of authenticity. Their mission to “promote the long history of China and to strengthen the people of Hong Kong’s awareness and appreciation of traditional Chinese culture” may be, in part, politically motivated, but ultimately Hong Kong is now part of China and does not, on the whole, feel very Chinese. As gentle reminders go, Chi Lin and Nan Lian are particularly polite ones. And, as a regular visitor to Hong Kong and China with limited time to seek out gardens, I was very glad of the introduction to the Tang Dynasty style, which is what many of us would consider classical Chinese.
Nan Lian Garden is connected to Chi Lin Nunnery by a landscaped bridge, carefully contrived to conceal the highway running beneath. The entire plot is encircled by busy roads, yet clever landscaping ensures that, once inside, one is immersed in a peaceful park which borrows heavily from the vertiginous mountains sheltering Kowloon.
The design of Nan Lian Garden is based on Jiangshouju Garden in Shanxi Province, the only surviving Tang Dynasty garden in China. The essence of the Tang style is the creation of naturally beautiful scenes in miniature using springs, hillocks, clipped trees, flowers, pavilions, winding paths, rocks and bridges, composed in such a way that they create a seemless and ever-changing landscape. This is exactly what I picture in my head when I think about a Chinese garden. The design, which extends over 3.5 hectares, employs the art of borrowing, concealing, blocking and extending views to make the space feel very much more expansive than it is. To appreciate all the nuances of the garden I had to walk around it both clockwise and counterclockwise, in each direction experiencing different vistas and set-pieces.
I chose a busy day to visit, so the garden was thronged with locals and a handful of tourists like myself. Due to the crowds some of the narrower paths were blocked off to protect the plants from trampling, which was a pity for me as I was itching to go beyond the barriers. Unfortunately the midday sun was so bright that the majority of my photographs came out very badly, but, if you close your eyes and imagine a pleasant, enveloping warmth, the sound of chatter dulled by a million leaves, and the hum of dragonflies flitting back and forth, you’ll have some appreciation of the calm sensation I experienced.
There is something unique about visiting a garden alone and without time pressure; it allows one to explore, tarry a while and retrace one’s steps without worrying about anyone else. All in all it’s very liberating. Feeling the most relaxed I have in months, I decided to venture into the tea house, Song Cha Xie, for a one-man tea ceremony. Once I’d been shown how to prepare my tea in the correct manner, I was left in serene silence for an hour and half to enjoy my 6 grams of rare Chinese tea, read my guide-book and contemplate the meaning of life.
I was fascinated to learn that the guiding principles of garden design, which have been regurgitated by countless proponents of landscape design since and are still taught today, were first written by a Tang Dynasty poet named Lu Zongyuan. He wrote “the design for a garden should suit the people who use it, taking into consideration the environment and for the celebration of the beauty of nature”. And that was over 1,000 years ago.
Another poet of that era, Bai Juyi, wrote “Where there are places for relaxation in the mundane world, there is no need to live as a recluse in the mountains“, which is very much how I feel about urban living. So long as I have green spaces, gardens, trees, peace and quiet, I can forgo country life for all the benefits of living in the city.
Nan Lian Garden is based on nature, but goes beyond it, creating a heightened sense of reality and artistry. It successfully introduces visitors to the traditional Chinese style whilst accommodating visitors with modern facilities such as restaurants, shops, toilets and exhibition spaces. The gardens are open from 7am to 9pm daily and should be on every garden-lover’s Hong Kong itinerary. Click here to visit the garden’s website for further details. TFG.
Plants in Nan Lian Garden
- Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii)
- Chinese water pine (Glyptostrobus pensilis)
- Japanese pagoda tree (Styphnolobium japonicum)
- Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia)
- Silver- back artopcarpus (Artocarpus hypargyreus)
- Humped fig (Ficus tinctoria)
- Chinese banyan (Ficus microcarpa)
- Common red-stem fig (Ficus variegata)
- Sago palm (Cycas revoluta)
- Horned holly (Ilex cornuta)
- Chinese box (Buxus microphylla var. sinica)
- Chinese ash (Fraxinus chinensis)
- Silk cotton tree (Bombax ceiba)
- Common crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)
- Orange jasmine (Murraya paniculata)
- Brazilian jasmine (Mandevilla spp.)
- Chinese privet (Ligustrum retusum ‘Merrill’)
- Birdwood’s mucuna (Mucuna birdwoodiana)
- Bougainvillea glabra ‘Variegata’