Visiting Portland’s Sister City Suzhou While Still in Portland
Because of another conference being held after the conference we were at, the hotel was at full capacity. Meaning we had to check out at 12 noon. Meaning we had about five hours to kill before leaving for the airport.
So, though it was misty/rainy outside, I just bought a light jacket, Googled things to do in Portland, and headed east to the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Chinatown.
Fortunately, when I got to the Lan Su Chinese Garden, the misty rain subsided. It’s mostly outdoors so it would’ve sucked walking about in the rain. But the rain did keep it from being too crowded, so it was a good thing.
The garden’s name represents this relationship: sounds from both Portland and Suzhou are combined to form Lan Su. “Lan” (蘭) is also the Chinese word for “Orchid” and “Su” (蘇) is the word for “Arise” or “Awaken,” so the garden’s name can also be interpreted poetically as “Garden of Awakening Orchids.” (蘭蘇園)
Lan Su is modeled after the Ming Dynasty gardens of China, which were designed as spiritual utopias: places where individuals could escape the problems of everyday life and discover their true selves by connecting with nature. Like those ancient gardens, Lan Su is a peaceful and soothing place – a respite from city life that is designed to inspire, facilitate personal growth, and spark creativity.
You first enter the Courtyard of Tranquility. The doorways and windows are designed to create views within views to “create the illusion of infinite space within a single city block.” The entryways are of different shapes, not the standard rectangle. The curves and odd shapes add an element of balance and makes going from one part of the garden to the next unique.
The ground as well as the pathways through the gardens is a mosaic of stones and rocks. If I had taken off my shoes, the stones and rocks, in a sense, massage your feet, helping put you at ease.
On the roof are these two sculptures, which at first glance I thought were just really fancy decor. Apparently, these “dragonfish,” or chiwen, swallows all evil influences and protects the building from fire.
As you step through to the next section, or vista, you enter the Knowing the Fish Pavilion. The name of the pavilion comes from a conversation between two philosophers. Walking along a stream and looking at the fish in it, one tells the other how happy he finds the fish to be. The other replies, “You are not a fish. How can you know that the fish are happy?” The first one then responds, “You are not me. How do you know I don’t know the fish are happy?”
I was just happy that the sun was trying to come out again.
Throughout Lan Su Gardens, you’ll see these rock formations. Different. They’re highly prized rocks called Lake Tai Rocks. Formed underwater over the course of many decades, the lake’s acidic and active waters erode some stone, leaving these unique shapes. Viewing these from bottom to top is akin to venturing up a mountain peak.
While you’re walking around the garden, there’s a distant sound of water. Because the garden is mostly all outdoors, you hear it faintly at first, and as you walk around and get closer, you see that it’s coming from a waterfall, the water cascading down Lake Tai Rocks designed to appear as rugged as mountains in the distance. The inscription on the rock translates to “Ten Thousand Ravines Engulfed in Deep Clouds.”
Next to the waterfall is probably the largest building there. It’s a tea house [I didn’t go inside and peek at the menu] that they call Tower of Cosmic Reflection. I had a feeling they had cosmic prices is why I skipped it.
Directly across from it, though, was the Moon Locking Pavilion. It sat in the middle of the lake, accessible by a small walkway, like a pier. On a clear night, you can see the reflection of the moon as a shimmering spotlight in the center of the lake, locked in by the pavilion’s shadow. The change in seasons, weather — even the shifting light throughout the day — can dramatically alter the garden’s appearance.
There are several little buildings in addition to the tea house. One of them was the Scholar’s Study. Here they had set up a replica of what it looked like way back then, where scholar’s would write their poetry. There was also a game set up, called Wei Chi (Chinese Go). It’s a board game that’s 2,500+ years old, considered one of the four essential arts a cultured Chinese school could possess.
Next to the Scholar’s Study and Scholar’s Courtyard was another pavilion with six panels carved from gingko wood illustrated actual gardens in Portland’s sister city of Suzhou. It’s called Flowers Bathing in Spring Rain. This day there was a concert at the pavilion so I couldn’t get closer to the panels. Cool music though.
Another interesting design is how they did they tiles. There are bat-shaped drip tiles along the roofline. Each tile is adorned with five bats, representing the five blessings:
- Long Life
- A Love of Virtue
- A Painless Passing
The Chinese language, rich in homonyms, abounds with double meanings. The sound “fu,” for the character “bat” is identical to that of the character for “happiness.”
These gardens are to be experienced through all your senses. There’s vision where the entire garden is visually pleasing wherever you stand; there’s taste — the tea house; there’s sound from the waterfall that fills the entire space; the stone mosaic pathways are soothing to the touch when you walk on them; and then there’s smell.
Everywhere are plants, flowers of all kinds, the very clean, refreshing scent of nature.
Overall, well worth the walk through the misty rain, partly because it stopped rainy, but very fascinating. I never understood the science behind these gardens. I just thought they were cool looking places to chill out, but now I see, they’re for more than that. They’re for getting in touch with your inner self, to clear your mind, to be one with nature, etc.
I recommend anyone who’s in Portland should stop by. Especially if there are any special events.