October 19, 2010

Lan Su Yuan: Garden of Awakening Orchids

“The solidity of stone (yang) is balanced by the softness of water (yin).

When opposites–yin yang–are in balance, there is rejuvenating qi energy.”

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Leslie Pugmire Hole/Spokesman staff

Don’t look for many Chinese people in this Chinatown – it seems they’ve all moved across the river to southeast Portland.

But you can still see some evidence of the once-thriving community of Chinese immigrants and first-generation Americans: noodle shops and gift stores, food markets and apothecaries, and most prominent of all, a huge gateway arching over Northwest 4th Street, its fierce lions and vibrant colors demanding attention on busy Burnside Street.

Much less obvious but so much more representative of the culture is the Lan Su Chinese Garden, tucked a few blocks into Chinatown from the bustle of Burnside. The walled garden, which celebrated 10 years in Portland in 2010 (it was formerly known as the Portland Classical Chinese Garden) is the epitome of an urban oasis: just outside its calm interior are bars featuring drag queens, a tattoo parlor, a rescue mission, a check cashing shop and the bustling Saturday market.

Lan Su emulates the classical gardens of Suzhou, Portland’s sister city, which is thought by many to have the best gardens in China. As is typical for classical Chinese gardens, Lan Su is small, making the most of its single city block.

We Westerners may have a hard time not thinking of the well-known English novel, “The Secret Garden,” when approaching Lan Su’s tall exterior walls that give few hints to what lay inside.

Inside is Lake Zither, an 8,000-square-foot artificial pond surrounded by plants, a variety of buildings and walkways. In the brochure you are given when you buy a ticket, the aerial map of the garden looks like a small city, so complete the illusion.

Inside, the symbolism and lyricism is overpowering. It’s not just the little lake that is named but the courtyards and pavilions as well. Even the views have names and their poetry, outside of what they symboli ze, is undeniable: Tower of Cosmic Reflections, Locking the Moon Pavilion, Hall of Brocade Clouds, Half a Window in Lush Green and Painted Boat in Misty Rain.

Although all the plants from the garden were gathered in the U.S., more than 90 percent are indigenous to China. Here visitors can find ground orchids, voodoo lilies, ginger, jasmine, hydrangea, flowering plum, dozens of species of bamboo and numerous exotic trees and shrubs.

The garden is far from being all about growing things, however. Lan Su Yuan is laden with gorgeous architecture, art and literature in the form of snippets of poetry inscribed throughout.

Surprising details are everywhere. Slip your shoes off when you enter courtyards paved in intricate patterns of smooth river rock – not only is the workmanship amazing to behold but it feels great on your feet.

Look up as you approach the Hall of the Brocade Clouds; a structure exquisite beyond belief, to the “dragon fish” on the roof. Their nautical roots are thought to protect the hall from fire.

Lan Su is not exclusively about contemplation and visual beauty. It has a lovely teahouse on the second structure of the Tower of Cosmic Reflections that serves light meals and, of course, tea. And the garden offers a gift shop, restrooms and is handicapped accessible throughout.

The garden is open year-round and has something to offer visitors no matter what the season. You can find out what special events may be coming up or what’s expected to be in bloom by checking the Lan Su website, www.portlandchinesegarden.org.

If you go

Lan Su Chinese Garden

Where: NW 3rd and Everett, Portland

Hours: April 1-Oct . 31, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Nov. 1-March 31, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Cost: $8.50 adults; $7.50 seniors (62 and older); $6.50 students (6-18 and college students with ID); children five and under free

Website: www.Lansugarden.org

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