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A Calm Oasis Amid Bustling Vancouver

The first full-scale classical garden outside mainland China reflects the growing presence of Chinese in Canada

WHEN you enter a classical Chinese garden, the Chinese say that first, you must feel it in your heart, later you can grasp it with your mind.

This is good advice given to all newcomers to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, an oasis of quietude that sits impassively amid the tumult of downtown Vancouver.

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With its high white walls screening out the relative harshness of the outside world, the garden's interior is a monument to reflection and contemplation, an exquisite sculpture of pavilions, covered walkways, and jade-green waters.

Walkways and terraces wind in and out to ward off ``evil spirits'' the Chinese believe travel in a straight line. But each turn also serves to offer a new perspective of earth, sky, and water. There is, as the Chinese say, no ``boredom for the eyes'' here.

The Sun Yat-Sen garden is that of a scholar, built to stimulate the mind, after the fashion of gardens built in the city of Suzhou during the Ming dynasty, 1368 to 1644 A.D. Yet the garden seems to bespeak this city's more recent Asian heritage.

Tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants poured into Canada during the 1800s, providing the muscle to build its transcontinental railroad. The legacy of that early influx was extended by the mid-1980s exodus of Hong Kong residents anticipating the transition from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

Today Vancouver often seems more a part of the Pacific rim than British Canada. The powerful Asian influence is well represented in the classical garden with its water-hewn and pitted limestone rocks laid atop one another in a strategic jumble. These form what appear to be mountains in miniature. Bamboo, pine and plum trees, which represent the virtues of grace, strength, and perseverance, ring the waters and protrude from the rocks.

Such features may look as though formed by nature, but nothing in this compact one-third of an acre is by accident. Everything here is a symbol for recurring themes that include light and dark, soft and hard, rugged and smooth - all part of the Taoist philosophy of harmonizing opposites epitomized by the yin and yang.

``What Chinese garden makers aimed at, behind their high white walls, was not merely to represent or copy parts of nature on a smaller scale, but to create, within a small space, a total landscape with all the forms of lakes and mountains, rocks, old trees, streams, hills and valleys,'' writes Maggie Keswick, an authority on classical Chinese gardens.

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Above all, the builders sought to imbue the gardens with ``the qi that animated them,'' Keswick says, describing the ``qi'' in Chinese thought as the ``vital breath which pulses through nature.''

The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden, which opened in 1986, is dedicated to the first president of the Republic of China and was the first full-scale classical garden built outside mainland China. (A smaller classical garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York predates the one in Vancouver.)

Since 1986, a handful of classical gardens have been built in other cities, such as Montreal and Sydney. A new garden is being built in St. Louis. Other cities considering Chinese gardens include Miami, Seattle, and Toronto.

But as officials here are quick to note, acquiring a classical Chinese garden is not the work of a moment, nor is it inexpensive. The Sun Yat-Sen garden was a joint venture between Canada and China that required years of design and community development. When finally approved, it took 52 Chinese artisans laboring for a year, 950 crates of Chinese building materials, and $3.9 million to complete.

Inside the crates were components to completely outfit a classical Chinese garden: limestone rocks, courtyard pebbles, lattice windows, handmade roof tiles, and other architectural elements.

The ``moon rocks'' - pitted limestone drawn from Lake T'ai - are piled atop one another to represent a rugged landscape.

Still, it is clear that you don't have to be a Taoist to enjoy the garden, or gain from it, or interpret it.

``What I love about this garden is that nobody is wrong here,'' says Francis Margolis, a docent who conducts interpretive tours through the garden. ``Looking at the leaf of this ginkgo tree, you can see a butterfly or an elephant or something altogether different. It's an individual thing.''

Certainly the garden has already, in its short history in Vancouver, achieved a special place in a city where about 20 percent of its 1.6 million people speak Chinese.

A middle-aged man, who sits gazing at the rocks and water, declines to give his name, but volunteers that he is originally from Beijing. ``I like this place very much,'' he says, his voice trembling slightly. ``It makes me feel as if I am home.''

* One of a series of articles from Canada's western provinces.

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