Dunedin Chinese Garden turns 15 this year

Mei Leng Wong / NZ Gardener 11:00, Jan 21 2023

For Dunedin’s Malcolm Wong, there is one specific garden that serves a far greater purpose than even all this. Wong regards Lan Yuan as his tūrangawaewae.

Wong, a chartered accountant who was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2022 New Year Honours list, explains it was the creation of Australasia’s only authentic Chinese garden (and his role in that) that helped him gain a deeper understanding of his own ancestry.

“The garden is central to the Chinese cultural footprint in Otago,” he says. “It’s also given us a focal point and a place to celebrate our heritage and, at the same time, bring in other groups to enjoy the events and celebrations.”Chinese New Year celebrations will be held this month (the Year of the Rabbit begins on January 22; Lan Yuan will hold official celebrations on the 28th).

The garden also regularly commemorates other significant days in the Chinese lunar calendar, including the Dragon Boat Festival (the fifth day of the fifth month) to remember poet and scholar, Qu Yuan (340–278BC), and the Mid-Autumn Festival (celebrated as the Moon Festival at the garden last September because, well, it wasn’t autumn in New Zealand; it is also known as the Mooncake Festival by the wider Chinese diaspora, for the sweet treat made for the occasion).

“The original concept was brought up during the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Europeans in Dunedin in 1998. Part of that celebration was a focus on the recognition of the Chinese contribution to the region,” Wong recalls.

Community elders called for a more permanent way to commemorate the Chinese history of Otago, and Wong soon found himself involved in the project to build a garden, serving as secretary and chairman of the fundraising subcommittee for the Dunedin Chinese Garden Trust.

He also helped to build the sister city relationship with Shanghai, which in turn allowed them to enlist the help of experts, craftsmen and master artisans from the city – along with shipping containers carrying 4000 tonnes of specially selected rock from Lake Tai in Shanghai.

The project was championed by Dunedin’s first Chinese mayor, Peter Chin, and land was donated by the Dunedin City Council. Fundraising was kicked off by contributions from descendants of the first Chinese to arrive in New Zealand – “old Cantonese family money”, as Wong describes it. Still, “it took 10 years to raise everything we needed. It wasn’t until about the mid-2000s that we had enough to actually start building.”

Lan Yuan’s creation here – the world’s southernmost Chinese garden – acknowledges the memory and testifies to the impact of the Chinese gold miners who first reached New Zealand in the 1860s.

In charge of this piece of paradise is head gardener Raewyn Maskill, who has found herself constantly juggling several priorities in the four years or so she’s worked here full-time (a part-time gardener and other contractors are brought in when necessary). “There’s always challenges. I try to put my own touch on it, but I also want to balance what will grow here with the theme of the garden.”

This means that sometimes, plans and plant choices change. Some plants are removed because they are too crowded together, others die or are removed when an area needs to be renewed.

Maskill has also worked to make the garden calmer. “We had a busy garden with lots of different things, but over the past few years, we took out a lot of the busyness and made it more restful,” she explains. “For example, we had a groundcover with blue and white vinca, under different coloured azaleas in pinks and purples. It looked like an English bouquet. We took them out and put in mondo grass and liriope. We also put in a group of camellias, all the same colour, which flower from June to November. The Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ provides layers.

“There’s still all the rich tones there, but it’s not really a flower garden now… more a garden of contemplation. I think we made it more inspiring, and it has the reds and purples and rich colours that are considered lucky in Chinese culture.”

Before settling on the planting scheme for that area, Maskill took two years to find suitable plants. “It takes that long to research plants, to talk to people, to start making that change and sourcing plants as well. Sometimes you just have to sit and look at it.

“For the garden’s 10th birthday, we hosted a delegation from China, which included one of the gardeners from Yuyuan (Shanghai’s botanical garden). Well, we both grabbed a translator and spent two hours going round the garden, and could’ve spent hours more but that was all the time we had. He talked about layers and time spent reflecting in the garden. His advice was to prune less, and sit and drink tea, look at the garden and listen to it. So I did!”

Still, prune less does not equal less work. The devil, as they say, is in the details, “and it’s a lot of detailed gardening that goes on,” Maskill adds. “It all has to be actively managed.”

The climbing figs (Ficus pumila), for instance, have decided they like it here and they show their affections by climbing up walls that should be left bare to provide shadows and as a background. So Maskill keeps a careful eye. “When those climbing figs are happy, their leaves get too big and leathery, and then the sun bleaches them out and they look yellow… we’re always looking at those sorts of things. Sometimes you see a tree that’s grown to crowd others and needs to be brought down to the right scale and proportion.”

Maskill avoids using too many chemicals as she doesn’t want any going into the water – the pond takes up 60% of the ground space of the garden. “We do spray twice a season for some aphids, but we encourage the birds in to help, and I’m going to see if I can bring [in] ladybirds. We have a tortured hazel (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’) that suffers badly from aphids. It has no fruit but looks amazing, casting shadows that create lots of patterns on the wall. Aphids love it though.”

By now, the garden has its own microclimate and some areas, their own unique conditions. One “wee garden” had a beautiful climbing rātā growing up over the wall, up to about 2m tall. “One morning though, we turned up for work and the whole thing had peeled off the wall! I chopped it off. Luckily the main root was still there. Now, roughly four years on, it’s starting to go back up the wall. I’ll put some pins in the wall and clip some main stems to support it so the wind doesn’t pull it off again.”

Interestingly, the garden is not irrigated. Maskill spends a lot of time watering with a hose – just how much depends on rainfall – but little and often is the way to go. “We can’t water a lot at one time anyway, because then you water tannins into the pond and turn the water brown.”

The same Chinese gardener who advocated tea in the garden emphasised to Maskill that her plant choices don’t have to be limited to what they would use in China in order to preserve authenticity. Rather, she should grow plants that would thrive here, with features that could represent the plants from China. Hence the climbing rātā and other natives such as the Marlborough rock daisy as well as exotics such as hostas, wisteria, mondo and carex grasses.

There is another aspect of Lan Yuan that is also in keeping with the tradition of scholarly gardens – its own resident scholar. Victoria University of Wellington’s associate professor James Beattie works remotely from his home in Dunedin. The chair of the New Zealand Chinese Heritage Research Charitable Trust and the Garden History Research Foundation, Beattie worked with Malcolm Wong to write the audio guide to Lan Yuan, which was then translated to Cantonese and Mandarin. “We hope to soon be able to do a Māori translation,” he says.

Beattie often gives talks at the garden to various groups on “everything from history to design to gardening”, he says. His talks aim to flesh out the different aspects of Chinese culture past and present, which is also one of the reasons he regularly organises events within the garden, such as the recent symposium on the changes in Chinese arts.

Presenters included New Zealand printmaker and artist Kim Lowe (renowned for her use of the forms and elements of her New Zealand-Chinese and Pākeha cultures and environment). “Because of Covid, we’ve had to postpone some events, but things are coming right,” he says. “It’s always well worth the effort because I can always guarantee that it will be a great day in the garden, which is looking so good now that it has that patina of age. It’s amazing in different seasons and different light. Well, it’s a work of art in plants and stones, isn’t it?”

In a normal year (read pre-Covid), Lan Yuan draws about 40,000 visitors. As the tourists return, expect the number to grow, because the Year of the Rabbit is said to be bringing with it peace, prosperity and success.