Nan Lian: the unlikely garden
Across a startling orange bridge the two-storey pavilion was clad in gold leaf that glowed, mirror-like in the midday heat. At its crown an umbrella-shaped canopy, frozen in gilded timber, dripped with miniature bells that dangled and chimed in quiet unison. Rows of manicured bonsai beckoned down the winding path, its sun-bleached bricks laid carefully in herringbone patterns. I stopped, basking in the sound of wind chimes tinkering softly in the breeze, and the melodious tones of a guzheng plucked by expert fingers – its source a hidden loudspeaker in the bushes.
Tucked away amid the flyovers and housing estates of northeastern Kowloon, Nan Lian Garden sits in a state of permanent calm, undisturbed by the presence of a nearby shopping mall and the busy entrance to Tate’s Cairn Tunnel. Harking back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), when China was at the height of its power, it was built less than ten years ago on the blueprint of Jiangshouju, a governor’s private garden some 250 km from Xi’an.
From the outset, Nan Lian struck me as looking far closer to classical Japanese than the well-known gardens of Suzhou. Records show that Japanese gardens of antiquity were heavily influenced by their Tang Dynasty counterparts, which used water as a dominant feature, creating miniature landscapes and borrowing views from the surrounding environment. Those aesthetics were adopted, pared down and continued by the Japanese, but over the ensuing centuries Chinese gardens would evolve in a very different manner.
On a terrace overlooking the main pond, an expat couple sat reading the South China Morning Post in the shade of a thatched pavilion. I joined the handful of visitors in a slow circuit around the immaculate grounds, already bristling with the earliest blossoms of spring. One by one we visited the rockery, a courtyard lined with potted landscapes (penjing), and a gallery of fine wooden models on the architecture of the Tang Dynasty. Before leaving, I took the raised stone walkway to Chi Lin Nunnery – itself a recent homage to China’s golden age.