Sydney's Chinese Garden

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Moongate, Chinese Garden of Friendship, Sydney

I first visited Sydney's Chinese Garden of Friendship at Darling Harbour 25 years ago, when a family wedding ceremony was held there. The garden, a symbol of friendship between the sister cities of Sydney and Guangzhou in the province of Guangdong, China, was created as a gift to commemorate Australia's bicentenary in 1988. The one-hectare garden was six years old at the time of my visit then, and it looked delightful on that happy day, but I was keen to see it again after all these years and had the opportunity to do so last week.

The lake framed by willow trees, Chinese Garden of Friendship, Sydney

The garden is wonderfully established now, with its trees - in particular weeping willows (Salix babylonica), black pines (Pinus thunbergia) and a spectacular pair of red cotton trees (Bombax ceiba), the official flower of Guangzhou) - towering above the site and giving a feeling of permanence. Shrubs have reached their ultimate heights and smaller plants have formed into impressive drifts. This time, I took a guided tour of the garden with friends, and learned so much about the place. The tour traced the journey that is central to the structure of the garden.

Magnolia, Chinese Garden of Friendship, Sydney

The garden follows the Taoist principles of 'Yin-Yang', the opposing yet complementary and balanced forces, and 'Wu-Xing', the five elements or 'phases' of wood, fire, earth, metal and water. These principles also stress the importance of Qi, the central force of life and energy. The garden areas are arranged around a large elaborate set of pavilions, of the type that would have been a residence for nobility, with each pavilion used for a specific purpose. Various walls of these structures define individual garden courtyards, and the buildings are organised around brooks, ponds and a magnificent lake with waterfalls. Behind the lake is a mountain feature, adorned with a large, beautifully decorated pavilion. Strolling through the garden, the visitor ascends the mountain via gently curved paths and is able to survey the whole of the garden from there, then stroll back into the lower areas via other paths.

View towards the mountain feature and rocks, Chinese Garden of Friendship, Sydney

The use of significant rocks in the landscape is a key feature of Chinese gardens, often used as dramatic focal points. The majority of the rocks in the Sydney garden are limestone and come from Cumnock, in country NSW, and their naturally sculptured shapes were chosen to represent important characters of legends, fables and traditions - for example the dragon in the lake that protects the mountain. As an added bonus, these rocks contain ancient marine fossils that can be seen on their surfaces.

Clipped azaleas, Chinese Garden of Friendship, Sydney

The plants in the garden were also all carefully chosen for particular purposes: beauty of their form, texture, flowers and fragrance; the provision of seasonal highlights; their practical uses in traditional medicine and cooking; and their sociocultural meanings. Many (but not all) of the plants grown are native to China, but all are ones used in Chinese gardens. It was intriguing to learn what some of the plants signify by their presence in a garden. For example, magnolias equate to nobility, Camellia sasanqua mean everlasting devotion, a weeping willow (Salix babylonica) connotes rebirth and rejuvenation, pine trees represent endurance, and lotus symbolise purity. Seeing so many plants of China flourishing here reminded me of how many of our good 'Sydney' garden plants come from this region, and I also noted Pieris japonica, Rhaphiolepis, Trachelospermum jasminoides, Loropetalum chinensis, Gardenia, Murraya paniculata, Osmanthus, azaleas, Ixora and Acorus. There are many pretty flowers at this time of year, and in autumn, there are colourful tints of deciduous trees such as the Gingko and Manchurian pears (Pyrus ussuriensis).

Dragon Wall with clipped trees, Chinese Garden of Friendship, Sydney

Trees and shrubs are often shaped into various forms in traditional Chinese gardens, such as the 'clouds' on Juniperus chinensis 'Kaizuka'. The willow trees near the lake are trained so that some branches grow almost horizontally, with the new foliage growth appearing on long stems that hang from these branches like a curtain, through which the important features of the garden can be glimpsed. Lower branches of other shrubs are trimmed to remove bushy foliage, again so that the garden can be seen through, and framed by, their bare, sculptured forms.

Water dragon, Chinese Garden of Friendship, Sydney

Entering the garden is like being transported to another world - it is an entire landscape, as intended by the designers. The sound of the waterfalls muffles the noise of the city beyond its walls and there is a serenity and tranquillity that soothes the soul. Wildlife abounds in the garden - there are very cute water dragons sunning themselves on rocks, turtles in the lake, along with some robust koi carp, and an array of birdlife, all of which were amusing the visiting children on the day we were there! Daily feeding of the koi is a highlight for kids!

A tea house within the gardens offers delicious refreshments at the end of the garden journey!