Sun Yat-Sen Garden 2.0: Chinatown’s New Cultural Hub

Photo: Remy Scalza

Chinatown’s Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden is a well known and well loved Vancouver fixture.  Nearing its 25th birthday, the classical garden was built by 53 master Chinese craftsmen at a cost of more than $6 million in anticipation of Expo ’86.  Today, it’s koi ponds, stone walkways and intricate chambers are one of the city’s most popular attractions, offering an idyllic retreat from the bustle of downtown.

What many visitors don’t realize, however, is that the garden also plays another, equally important role – as a venue for innovative theatre, music and exhibitions.  In fact, with the revitalization of Vancouver’s Chinatown in recent years – spurred by real estate investment and the opening of new restaurants and boutique hotels – the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden has been reborn as a centre for arts and culture in the community.

Photo: Remy Scalza

I explored the garden earlier in the week (Adult tickets are $14) and got the inside scoop on upcoming events, as well as insight into the garden’s past.  Back in 1986, the garden’s original craftsmen were brought in from Suzhou – a city renowned for its gardens and known as the Venice of China.  They arrived wearing woven rattan hardhats and labored for 15 months, using wood and limestone imported from China (A macabre piece of garden trivia: One Chinese craftsman ended his life by impaling himself on his own chisel).   Not a single nail or screw was used during construction: All wooden joints are ingenuously fitted together with dowels and tongues. The result is a masterpiece: one of the finest examples of a Ming Dynasty classical garden in the Western Hemisphere.

As beautiful as the garden is, however, it’s meant for more than admiring.  In China, classical gardens were settings for people to meet, debate and reflect.  With that in mind, staff at Sun Yat-Sen have implemented an ambitious cycle of cultural programming designed to draw the greater Vancouver community into the garden.

For starters, there are weekly concerts on Friday evenings at 7:30 p.m. during the summer.  Known as Enchanted Evenings, this series has been going on (albeit quietly) for more than a decade and highlights live world music performances.  Some shows take place inside the reception hall, while others are staged right in the garden itself.  This Friday, Van Django – a Vancouver group that plays Gypsy-inspired jazz – will be taking the stage.   Tickets are $20 and – a little known fact – the venue is fully licensed.  Jazz and wine in one of the city’s prettiest gardens . . . . I could think of worse ways to start my weekend.

Photo: Remy Scalza

In addition to the music, the garden stages a live theatre performance during the summer every Saturday and Sunday evening at 7:30 p.m. (tickets from $12-$22).  The play – known as The China Tea Deal – was specially written for the garden and is a kind of historical fairytale.  A British tea merchant travels to the Chinese city of Suzhou to negotiate a trade agreement with a local scholar and businessman.  Unexpected twists – and plenty of opium-related intrigue – ensue.

Coming up on Sept. 19 is another special gathering at the garden: the annual Mid-Autumn Moon Festival.  This huge fete is roughly equivalent to a Chinese Thanksgiving, with a focus on eating and enjoying the bounty of the harvest.  Thousands of people take part in the festivities at the garden, which include lots of moon cakes and other lunar-themed delicacies.

Photo: Remy Scalza

There’s much more going on inside the garden: monthly art exhibits; private weddings (more than 60 scheduled for this year) and – surprisingly – lots of film shoots (recently Owen Wilson stopped by to do a scene for a new comedy).  Even if you’re already well acquainted with the garden and its many koi, it might be worth a visit to catch some of the new programming.

Tickets for this and all other Vancouver attractions are available from our Visitor Center.

More information about events can be found on the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden Facebook page.  You can also follow them on Twitter: @vangarden.

Remy Scalza

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