A Visit to Portland’s Chinese Garden

The entrance to the Lan Su Chinese Garden in NW Portland. The garden is like an oasis in the middle of several large office buildings and busy streets, but views of the buildings were considered and incorporated into garden views.

It was a walk down memory lane for Brett and I when we entered Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden this past Thursday. We made frequent trips to the garden when we lived here, both to visit and attend special events with the girls, to the point we purchased annual memberships for a couple of years. The classical Suzhou-style walled garden, which takes up a full city block, was designed by Kuang Zeng and constructed by 65 artisans from China, with completion and the garden opening in the fall of 2000. Over 500 tons of rock were brought over from China, including large scholar stones from Lake Tai, where the acid water of the lake carves stones into fantastical shapes. Located in NW Portland near the former Old Town Portland’s Chinatown, the Lan Su Chinese garden blends in among the modern buildings in the neighborhood. Suzhou is a sister city of Portland, and the name Lan Su means “Portland-Suzhou” as well as “Garden of the Awakening Orchids.”

A scholar stone from Lake Tai in China sit at the entrance to the garden.
Paths and courtyards through the garden are paved in designs created by Chinese pebbles inlaid on their sides.

The garden was carefully designed to express the elements and harmony of yin and yang, and can be enjoyed in any season or any weather. Spade-shaped drip tiles were installed so the sound of dripping water could be enjoyed while viewing the garden in the rain. The pointed tiles seen throughout the garden are decorated with five bats representing the “five blessings:” long life, good fortune, good health, a love of virtue and a painless death.

The spade-shaped tiles on the roof are drip tiles decorated with a design of five bats. The water running off them when it rains creates a pleasant sound.
Openings in the garden walls served as frames for the setting behind the wall, like viewing a painting. This view highlights a stone from Lake Tai, set in the back.

Lan Su Garden is made up of twelve vistas, each one expressing a separate element, with views designed to reflect nature’s harmony. Some of the views are from rooms that look out into the garden, such as the Reflections in Clear Ripples, the Scholar’s Study, or Hall of Brocade Clouds. Both interior and exterior doorways and windows throughout the garden frame views so that they appear like paintings that one can stop to admire and contemplate.

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Although it was rather chilly, and rain was imminent, we took our time walking through the garden. Besides the garden experience, Chinese-themed art works and prints were being sold (some from China), and there were also several other activities and displays throughout the garden, including a family altar with ancestor photos in one room and a chance to learn your fortune, Chinese style, in another. Although we didn’t go in, the two-story Tower of Cosmic Reflection contains a traditional Chinese tearoom, where one can sit and linger, enjoying views of the garden while sipping tea and nibbling on dumplings or other treats.

The Lan Su Chinese Garden is the largest Suzhou-style garden in the United States, and contains over 100 different types of plants, with 90% of them indigenous to China (the actual plants didn’t come from China but were found in nurseries and gardens in Oregon, both public and private). Some of the plants in the garden are over 100 years old. The garden experience is truly one for all the senses.

Many of the old restaurant signs remain in the Old Town neighborhood although the restaurants are now all gone, either closed or moved to SE Portland.
Located at NW 4th Avenue and Burnside Street is the Old Town Chinatown Gateway, dedicated in 1986.

After we left the garden, Brett and I walked around Old Town Chinatown, coming upon many of the restaurants where we had dined that are now shuttered and closed, with only their signs remaining. We could remember eating at almost everyone of them, whether it was for dinner out, dim sum on the weekend, a banquet benefiting the Immersion program or some other occasion. Some of the restaurants moved to SE Portland, but most are now only a memory. Although the neighborhood has improved somewhat and new businesses have moved in, we could tell Old Town has we retained its run down feel, but we never felt unsafe and were glad for the chance to visit again.

7 thoughts on “A Visit to Portland’s Chinese Garden

  1. Interesting garden. I can’t see all the photos on the app on my phone as they require Java so will have to wait until I get on a desktop.

    What an interesting interplay. A manicured garden in a run down part of town!

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    1. The garden location was chosen for two reasons: it was connected with was then Portland’s Chinatown (everything has now moved over to the SE except for the big entrance gate), and the land for the garden was donated by NW Natural, the natural gas provider for the area. The garden was given a 99-year lease. While the neighborhood is sketchy – there are many homeless, drawn to the area by the many services set up there, and many abandoned buildings – I’ve still never felt frightened whenever we’ve gone. But, we’re careful. And, knowing Portland, I’m pretty sure it will eventually be gentrified and become one of the “hot” neighborhoods with the accompanying high prices. But, that hasn’t happened yet so it remains somewhat run down for the most part.

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      1. That’s interesting. As I mentioned in another post, I was at Lan Su in 2016 and was a bit disturbed by the neighborhood and was wondering what was going on there, so thank you for explaining it. Lan Su felt like an oasis! Although, I do want to say I didn’t feel particularly unsafe when I was there, but it was during the day and I was with a co-worker and her husband (we were on a business trip). Another thing about Portland I’ve been wanting to ask you is we saw a lot of young people who seemed to be pretending to be homeless. They were well dressed and holding up signs that said things like “need $ for beer” so not sure what that was about. That was not in the area near Lan Su though. I can’t remember exactly where that was but I do remember it was near a store selling items from Oregon State University, if that helps. I live near NYC and have traveled quite a bit, so I’ve seen all sorts of things and am not easily shocked, but I didn’t understand the young, possibly fake, homeless people and it has kind of bugged me ever since. I felt like they were mocking the real homeless, but I don’t know. Like I said, I found it confusing and so did the people I was traveling with.

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      2. There are many homeless in Portland these days; Brett and I have been shocked and saddened by the numbers of tents and encampments we have seen around town. We’re not sure what has caused the change but it’s frustrating to see so many. Portland has become a very expensive city though – housing prices are through the roof, including for rentals, gas is nearly $1 more per gallon than it was on Kaua’i, and the price of everything here is much more than it was when we left. I think that’s part of the problem, but I also think Portland may seem like a welcoming place for the homeless. I just don’t know, but it is a big issue here these days.

        Not sure of what to make of the young people you encountered. Maybe it was a (not funny) putdown of the homeless (i.e. money is going directly for beer, not food or shelter). I don’t know but it would have shocked me to.

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  2. Beautiful. i’m surprised it’s in a rundown section. Hopefully, someone will appreciate the area and bring it back to life.

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    1. There have been many attempts to “upgrade” Old Town, but most have failed so far. My opinion is that part of the problem may be because many services were put in place earlier to assist the homeless – those services still exist and draw the homeless and less fortunate to the area and keep businesses out. Old Town is also adjacent to the bus station location-wise, and Chinatown’s relocation to another part of the city definitely didn’t help either. Portland has a knack though for taking rundown areas of the city and gentrifying them (ask us about property values in our old neighborhoods – we couldn’t afford to live in either of them) – Old Town may be the last frontier for that. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see some of the neighborhood’s old buildings turned into expensive lofts, apartments and condos in the future, and trendy restaurants and stores moving in. It’s what Portland does, but just hasn’t happened yet.

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