dunedin-045-smallDunedin City (Ceidrik Heward)

Dunedin is New Zealand’s oldest city and drips with history. The city started as a swampy settlement struggling to establish itself until the discovery of gold in Central Otago in the 1860s. Almost overnight, the impoverished settlement of a few hundred settlers, grew into an important town supplying goods and services to the thousands of miners arriving to hunt for gold. Apart from the European men who made up the majority of the miners, 2000 Chinese miners also arrived in the area and when the rush was over, a number of them remained in Dunedin and set up various business including market gardening and clothing manufacture. Both these enterprises flourished in the affluent young city.

During the gold rush fever, a small group of Chinese women were sent to Otago to offer relief to their countrymen. However, the unfortunate women, with their tiny bound feet, were unable to stand on the steep, gravel covered slopes of the valleys and river banks where the miners worked. These purposefully crippled women could only walk on flat, smooth surfaces so ended up in Dunedin offering their services in the town’s growing red light district. This infamous part of town was frequented by young European miners with money and energy to spend and it has been suggested that these prostitutes were partly responsible for establishing a permanent Chinese presence in the city.


In 1997, to celebrate Dunedin’s 150th birthday, and the importance the Chinese community has played in the city’s success, the Chinese community, motivated by the city’s Chinese mayor, gifted a unique present to the people of the Dunedin (and New Zealand)

The 7.5 million dollar attraction is the only authentically built Chinese Scholar’s Garden in the southern hemisphere and is only one of two outside China. (The other one is in New York)

img_1134-smallP’ai Lau Memorial Entrance


Going back 2000 years, the art of Chinese gardening is one of the oldest artistic expressions created by man and is sometimes called the ‘mother of gardens’.  Scholar-officials of the day needed places of refuge from the pressures of their job. These men were civil servants appointed by the emperor of China and were responsible for the day-to-day running of the country. Consequently, they had a great amount of stress. Their gardens were places where they could relax and calm their spirit. The traditional layout of the scholar’s garden also put them in touch with their ancient culture. They were  places where meditation was done away from the noise, bustle and dust of the outside world.


Creating the Dunedin garden was a huge undertaking starting with 99 containers to transport every part of the garden from China. These included 970 tons of rock and 380,000 handmade tiles. The finely sculptured wooden pavilions were built in Shanghai. As well as this work, 63 skilled craftsmen spent a further 6 months in Dunedin creating the enchanting space that has emerged. Everything was assembled using the ancient skills of mortise and tenon. (the end of one piece of wood is plugged into a hole in a second piece, securing the joint without nails or glue) This garden is totally authentic!

chinese-garden-handmade-roof-tilesHandmade Tiles

dunedin-raw-013Intricate Woodwork

This strikingly beautiful garden, carefully named ‘Lan Yuan’ (Orchid Garden) covers 3000 square metres between a museum and the main trunk railway line, but inside the white walls, the wasteland has been transformed into an oasis of beauty and tranquillity.



The Chinese garden is regarded as living art and is closely related to Chinese landscape painting. Each garden is designed to capture a natural landscape’s essence by using wood, rock and water. The structures are placed to produce lines that twist and turn, rise and fall, to create a series of completely different vistas.

Bamboo and Lotus are of particular significance to the Chinese. Lotus represents emerging successfully from hardship (emerging from the mud unsoiled). Bamboo represents refinement. “You can live without meat, but without bamboo, you become less respectable.” Ancient Chinese saying.

Willow, Apple and Cherry Blossom, Magnolia, Pine and Maple are the plants usually associated with Chinese gardens and they feature along with 90 other varieties of shrubs, trees and flowers. Banana plants are also part of the Chinese Scholar’s Garden because they make a pleasing sound when the wind blows. It took 18 months to source all the plants.


The garden’s location is only a stone’s throw from the Dunedin Railway Station, the most photographed building in New Zealand, but because it is hidden by high walls, it could easily go unnoticed. However, the colourful P’ai Lau, the memorial entrance, signals something special.

I was impressed with this garden when I was last in Dunedin. There are so many beautiful views with every step. Immediately, I notice the central pavilion with its curving roof reflected in the pond’s milky green water. Turning slightly, I see a rocky mound, with a myriad of surfaces playing with the sunlight. A waterfall tickles one side, while little caves taunt me into their inviting interiors. An arching bridge invites me to explore a hidden corner and another beguiling scene.

I now gaze along a sloping corridor. Its undulating roof reminds me of a marching caterpillar. I glance up at a Phoenix rising on a gracefully curving roof beam to keep away bad spirits. Beyond the walls, I notice the spire of First Church soaring skywards. This is a legacy from Dunedin’s Scottish Presbyterians. It’s a unique juxtaposition of symbols of two vastly different cultures, reminding me I’m not in China.

A few steps along another attractive pathway, I stop and stare at a double storied pavilion with its bank of small windows cradled in finely carved wooden frames. On the narrow walkway stretching across the pond, I marvel at the wooden fireworks on another magnificent masterpiece. This is all designed to court and calm my spirit and it’s certainly working. I feel at peace, rejuvenated and strangely satisfied.

The 15th century Chinese garden designer, Ji Ching said  “The garden is created by the human hand, but should appear as if created by heaven”. I’m confident he’d be proud of this living work of art gifted to the City of Dunedin by its Chinese community.

Here is a quick tour for you to watch:

All location photos in this blog taken by Ceidrik Heward

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