By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
In West Seattle, on the grounds of South Seattle College, is a verdant tribute to U.S.-Chinese relations. Wandering the peaceful grounds, one can hardly believe there is such a thing as a trade war, or that our two countries have ever not been friends. Inside of the Sichuan-style courtyard, you might think you’re not in the United States anymore. Instead, perhaps you are in Seattle’s sister city,
Chongqing, China. Almost. But it’s not quite that way. Seattle Chinese Garden is a green gateway between both countries, both cities, and both cultures. Yet it’s barely begun to blossom.
There are big plans for the future of the Garden, which is the only Sichuan-style garden outside of China. Since the first structure, the Song Mei Pavilion, was dedicated in 1999, a Knowing Spring Courtyard has been added, along with the Chan Education Center, which provides a home base for administrative staff, Garden course offerings, and yearly festivities. Landscaping, such as a stand of peony trees, has taken place using plants found in China, especially in Sichuan and famous scenic spots, such as sacred mountain, Emei, and Chongqing’s Erling Park. Visiting the Garden as it is now gives a tantalizing hint at the grander vision.
Recently, the Garden received a generous donation of $1 million dollars to put towards its next planned structure — the teahouse. The donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, was described by Paige Miller, Garden Board of Directors and Vice President (Fundraising), as “someone of Chinese heritage who wants to see Chinese art, culture and values passed on to the next generation — and who is impatient to see the teahouse built.” It’s a start. A big chunk of the $8 million total that is anticipated to complete the project. Why a teahouse and why now?
At a recent fundraiser, Miller provided this motivation, “[The Garden] is the place to teach our children and community about the people and ways of the second most powerful nation on Earth…No other relationship between two nations will be more important in this century. No other relationship is now more at risk of going sideways…Seattle has been a leader in connecting with China, and this Garden has been a leader in that effort. Now, more than ever, we need to remind people of our region’s leadership role and to re-dedicate ourselves to being this bridge between our two countries and our two peoples.”
Similarly to how, even in the midst of international conflict, individual citizens may strive to express their shared humanity, learn about each other, and allow their relationships to grow, so too does the Garden need nurturing to fully blossom into the symbol of friendship and mutual respect that it is meant to be.
The teahouse, in particular, will be a place of community and gathering. It will be unique to the Garden as it stands now in that it will provide an indoor versus an outdoor space for quiet contemplation or convivial socializing. A small kitchen will be onsite to offer light meals and tea, while catering will also be available for groups up to 40 (eventually, the Garden plan includes a banquet hall which will accommodate around 150 people).
Imagine if you will, visiting the peaceful grounds of the Garden in the winter-time, and enjoying a hot cup of tea inside a traditional, Sichuan-style building with a charming lotus pond, and in the background, the Emerald City. As Miller pointed out, there are very few garden spaces in the area which offer an indoor space that attracts visitors year-round.
“You come to a public garden in Seattle in November and it’s chilly and damp! If you can go inside and spend an hour with your hands on your tea cup and warm up, then it is a nice experience!”
As many know, the Chinese tea experience is not the same as that of other countries, such as Japan. While the Chinese do have ceremonial aspects to the enjoyment of tea, in general, having tea in China is a more social, less formal event. At a Japanese teahouse, nothing but making tea occurs. At the Garden teahouse, other garden activities will be offered, such as calligraphy or painting classes, martial arts demonstrations, or music performances. Community members will be able to reserve the premises for events, and seasonal celebrations will occur.
If, as is hoped, this recent donation gets the ball rolling, Miller predicts it will take at least 18 months to complete the teahouse. As part of Seattle’s partnership with Chongqing, the Chinese sister city will provide the skilled craftsmen to build the Sichuan-style architecture. As Miller explained, the tile work and other intricacies of the Garden structures, such as the sweeping awnings over the doorways particular to the Sichuan region, are hard to come by outside of China.
“The skill that it takes to do this — there isn’t anybody in the U.S. …it’s not something you can source here.” The visiting artisans also provide more opportunity for education, when the Garden invites school children to view the work as it is in progress, as has been done previously.
“It’s a really great way to teach people about China,” Miller emphasized. “Both people of Chinese heritage who want to pass it on to the next generation, and people like me who aren’t of Chinese heritage but really want to understand the culture.”
One building, one lily pond, and one peony tree at a time, the Garden is taking shape. The recent donation has catapulted the teahouse project into the realm of possibility. Miller hopes that this donation will inspire others to follow suit, especially in this time of tension between our two nations.
“There have been other fraught times at the national level,” she reminded at the Garden’s fundraiser. “And that is when the City of Seattle and this Garden have stepped forward to continue to engage, to continue to teach folks here about Chinese people and their rich heritage of arts and learning, to continue to connect to our friends abroad.”
A donor board stands outside the Knowing the Spring Courtyard, demonstrating the generosity of previous givers. Now, the Garden needs help again, to fulfill its mission, as they describe it, of “enriching the quality of life in the Pacific Northwest, by providing a beautiful ‘coming together space’ in Sichuan style, [that] will strengthen the region’s global community and citizenship.”
The Seattle Chinese Garden is open all year. To volunteer at the Garden or to donate funds, please contact Paige R. Miller at (206) 369-3746, firstname.lastname@example.org; or Mason Blacher at (206) 329-3882, email@example.com. You can also contact the Garden’s main office at (206) 934-5219. Staff is on hand to assist in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.