Portland, Oregon's Classical Chinese Garden, or "Lan Su Yuan," as
it is known in Chinese, is a pleasant oasis in an urban setting. Designed to
take advantage of the seasons, the garden offers a place to appreciate balance
and nature year-round.
Water, Stone, Plants, Architecture, Poetry
As a Ming-style urban garden, Lan Su Yuan weaves the five elements considered
essential in a formal garden of this dynasty: water, stone, plants,
architecture, and poetry. Each of the five elements is within view virtually
everywhere you look. The architecture is perhaps the most immediately
compelling to the Western eye, with its swooping rooflines, heavy
ornamentation, and unusual shapes and placement of windows and columns.
Buildings include five pavilions (Knowing the Fish Pavilion, Painted Boat in
Misty Rain boat-shaped pavilion, a small square pavilion, a waterside pavilion,
and a pavilion in the lake dedicated to the moon), a lounge house, a teahouse,
a study, an entry hall, and a gift shop. My favorite was the study, a room of
great simplicity and excellent light, adorned with warm woods, and affording
peek-a-boo views of the gardens beyond.
While "garden" in Chinese implies much more than plants, plants
play a key role. In this space of one city block, over 500 species are planted.
Lan Su Yuan is a sister garden to a garden in Suzhou, China. While the plants
in the Portland garden are from Pacific Northwest donors, they are designed to
reflect the types and interrelationships of the plants in the Suzhou garden.
Water drips from falls and springs and is present in the garden's central
body, 8,000 square-foot Zither Lake. The day I visited, a gentle rain fell as
well, which only added to the beauty of the outdoor spaces within the garden.
The elements of poetry and stone are everywhere as well. Chinese characters
adorn nearly every column, panel, and gateway, offering wisdom and inspiration
for those fortunate enough to be able to read it. If you choose a guided tour,
docents translate some of the inscriptions. As for the stone, you'll find it
great and small, from free-form natural sculptures to rock gardens among the
plants to mosaic-like tiles in ever changing patterns underfoot.
"Never Twice the Same"
Portland, like many parts of China, has four definite seasons. It is warm in
the summer, cold in the winter. It receives rain, snow, sunshine, and fog. The
design of the gardens, from its interplay of open- and closed-roofed areas to
its selection of plants, takes advantage of this. The non-profit Portland
Classical Chinese Garden organization, that runs the garden for the City of
Portland, encourages frequent visits and offers memberships to facilitate this.
There are, indeed, many ways to enjoy the facility. Besides the obvious
difference of coming in the various seasons of the year and varying weather,
the experience of visiting with a tour guide is quite different from doing a
self-guided tour. A solo visit is more contemplative than one with a group. And
choosing to linger in the rooms and/or take tea in the teahouse makes for a
different experience than rushing through. Note that most of the garden's
walkways are ADA accessible as well.
Planning Your Visit
Admission to the gardens is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, $5.50 for students,
and children under 5 are admitted free. Annual memberships, including free
admission, are $25 for students and seniors and $35 for adults. Family and
group memberships are also available, as are enhanced memberships with
The garden is located northwest of downtown Portland in Old Town/Chinatown
with its main entrance on NW Third and Everett. It is open from 9 a.m-6 p.m. April 1-October 31, and from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. the rest of the year. Tours are
free of charge and are given most days at noon and 1 p.m.
Sally O'Neal Coates is a Pacific Northwest native whose urban, suburban, and
wilderness rambles have been chronicled weekly on Sportsmansguide.com since 2000.