Driving along a coastal highway in Hong Kong’s eastern Tuen Mun district, one encounters row upon row of high-rises in what was, not so long ago, a remote, sparsely inhabited littoral landscape. Suddenly and unexpectedly, a slight bend in the road reveals an imposing grey stone edifice, like some incongruous slice of the Great Wall.
Beyond it are tantalizing glimpses of a lush green hillside with terraced gardens gone slightly wild, and the bright punctuation of traditional Chinese garden villas decorated in still-brilliant hues. The glint of half-hidden waterways and languidly swaying trees beckon enticingly, and a mural inset into a distant hillside resolves into a Daoist immortal, smiling as he rides through clouds.
These tantalizing, brief glimpses of a secluded world are all that most people in Hong Kong have ever seen of Dragon Garden, a private Eden built in the 1950s by the prominent Hong Kong industrialist and philanthropist Lee Iu Cheung. Created in emulation of the traditional “literati” (or scholars’) gardens designed and enjoyed by China’s elite for millennia, Dragon Garden is constructed along traditional cosmological principles, in which the balanced harmony between culture and nature is of central importance. The inner entrance to the garden is through a narrow grotto reminiscent of the Daoist cave of mythology, through which one is magically transported to paradise.
The natural landscape, moving upwards on a gently rising slope and graced on either side by a flowing stream like a gentle embrace, is interposed with formally planned elements—footpaths and rockeries, pools and pavilions– intended to heighten the sensation of leisurely contemplation of the natural world. Small pagodas provide resting places for the enjoyment of tea, music, conversation or painting, while a hidden, rustic hut beckons one to contemplation. The modern entertainments are represented by an Olympic-sized pool at the base of the garden, and two villas whose traditional style belies the modernized fittings within.
Designed by the eminent architect Chu Pin, who was both highly trained in modern western architectural techniques and deeply committed to preserving China’s architectural heritage—Dragon Garden was largely built in the late 1950s, with some architectural elements added later. As such, it is both rich in tradition and at the same time very much a 20th-century construct, reflecting the modern sensibility of its Hong Kong patron. Trained as hydraulic engineer, Lee Iu Cheung made his family fortune in the tile business, and signs of his interests—which included the use of recycled materials- -are woven throughout the garden. Decorative tiles used in the garden architecture— much of it constructed in concrete–recreate in mosaic the richly coloured painted patterns of imperial garden buildings. Recycled materials are also found in the glass scales used to decorate a vast water dragon rising from a coursing stream, and the ceramic bottles lining the
walkways. A whimsical blend of tradition and individuality, the garden nevertheless is truly authentic in spirit, with a strongly positive fengshui palpable to every visitor. Yet in the years since Lee Iu Cheung’s death in 1976, visitors have been few, as the fate of Dragon Garden hung in the balance and developers waited at the gates. Thanks to the efforts of his granddaughter, Cynthia, and the generosity of his youngest son, Lee Shiu, the garden has now been saved as a heritage site, and a vision is developing both to conserve the garden and to open it to the public as a dedicated arts and cultural space—in essence, a literati garden for the 21st century.
by Valerie C DORAN email: email@example.com
Valerie C Doran is a critic, curator, and translator specializing in the field of contemporary Asian art with a special interest in cross-cultural currents and comparative art theory.