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Seattle Chinese Garden

Our neighbors to the north (Vancouver, BC) and to the south (Portland, OR) both have traditional Chinese gardens. Seattle is in the process of building its own world-class Chinese garden.

Visit the Seattle Chinese Garden web site

The arrival of a hand-carved stone pavilion in Seattle in February 1999 signified a long-awaited first step in the construction of a Chinese garden in Seattle. Located on seven acres on the campus of South Seattle Community College in Southwest Seattle, it will be the only Sichuan-style garden outside of China in the world. Supporters have been planning the garden, a gift in coordination with Seattle’s sister city, Chonqin, since 1986. Eight Chinese artisans traveled to the Pacific Northwest to help reassemble the small pavilion at the college.

The pavilion is named “Song Mei,” which loosely translates as pine and plum, and is the Chinese symbol for friendship. Chinese Garden Society members describe the pavilion as “not bigger than a small room, with a tile roof and a wood open-latticework structure on a stone foundation.” Its total cost is about $220,000.

Physically, it represents a very small part of the overall facility, according to society board member Jim Dawson, a local architect who heads the project’s design and construction committee.

But it represents much more in terms of the final product. Seattle Chinese Garden Society Executive Director Judy Koenig said the pavilion will be constructed in Seattle as a necessary first step “so people could see what the fuss is all about.” She also described this as an opportunity for garden lovers to see “the original influence of what today we consider a beautiful garden.”

“So many people do not know what a Chinese garden is,” Koenig explained. “They just assume that a Chinese garden is the same as a Japanese garden,” which is not the case. “In a sense, the Chinese garden is the mother of all gardens,” Koenig said, “because the Chinese garden was the inspiration for the Japanese and the English garden as we now know them.”

English- and Japanese-style gardens, in turn, have had “a profound influence on the gardens we have here in the Pacific Northwest,” she said. The pavilion is to serve as a “visual representation” of what the Seattle Chinese Garden—with its pavilions, bridges, ponds, vegetation and sculptures— will look like when completed.

The pavilion helped raise the necessary millions of dollars needed to help the entire garden project through to completion. It also served as a test case to see how effectively the plan of fabricating, disassembling, shipping and reconstructing other garden structures is likely to be, said Dawson.
Koenig described the Song Mei Pavilion as “a window to understanding Asian, and especially Chinese culture.” “All of my life I’ve been aware of the great cultural contributions of our Chinese citizens…I think that this garden will be an appropriate tribute to their heritage and contributions,” she said. Koenig explained that a Sichuan-style Chinese garden differs from other Chinese gardens (which can be found in Vancouver, B.C., and Portland) in that it’s “much more distinct, more parklike and it makes a greater use of plant material.”

Most Chinese gardens around the world are of the Suzhou-style, which Koenig described as “more formal.” They often feature courtyards as a major component. “So for plant lovers like me, this (Sichuan-style) is very exciting,” Koenig said. Sichuan gardens incorporate the use of rock in the shapes of small mountains and rivers to provide an expanse that is more like nature and “sympathetic to the eye,” Koenig said. The style “reminded me of beautiful (nature-created) gardens when I went hiking in the Cascades. I saw the most beautiful, natural mountain rock gardens there.” Although the style aims to recreate nature, it is considered one of the highest art forms in China.

By contrast, here “in Western civilization, we don’t think of gardening as fine art,” said Koenig. The use of rock in gardens, for example, has become “an exciting inspiration” to gardeners around the world.

Other styles, as well, have gained popularity. Penqing, for example, an original version of Bonsai (its Japanese counterpart), was the initial impetus for certain types of rock and water plant arrangements, “and that is a brand new concept to Westerners,” she said. “It’s exciting to look at this (garden) through fresh eyes,” Koenig said. The garden has been named Xi Hua Yuan, which means “Seattle Chinese Garden.”

Features include a spectacular panoramic view of downtown Seattle, plus the site is surrounded by greenbelt and the college arboretum. “It is a very accessible as a public space (and) recreation area,” Koenig said. In years of planning, Koenig has traveled to China many times to facilitate relations. She said some issues, such as making the garden accessible to the handicapped, had to be explained to Seattle’s Chinese sister city officials.

A meeting hall will be constructed on the garden site, which will be used for various formal meetings and exchanges with Chinese officials. Also, the Chinese garden will be part of special program additions at South Seattle Community College, in horticulture and Asian studies. “It will be the centerpiece of a new Asian studies curriculum” in the college’s efforts to encourage more transfer students within the humanities, explained Koenig.
The pavilion’s arrival is educational as well: It is part of a project adopted by Seattle school children. A year ago, West Seattle students decorated the specially designed cargo container, popularly known as the “boomerang box,” and used by APL (formerly American President Lines) for shipping.

Its journey from Central China to Shanghai and then back to the United States was tracked by school children all over the world via the internet. A special celebration in honor of its arrival was to be held at the APL port in West Seattle. 

For more information on the Seattle Chinese Garden project, call the Seattle Chinese Garden Society at (206) 282-8040.





If you think Chinese gardens are just like Japanese gardens, you are mistaken.  Learn more about the unique character of Chinese gardens!