We step out of Diamond Hill MTR station in Kowloon, walking towards a walled area surrounded by tall housing estates and bordered by overlapping flyovers. A gilded pavilion emerges behind the walled enclosure, standing on a small island in a pond, glowing under the midday sun. Two bright orange bridges connect the pavilion with rows of manicured trees at the rim of the pool; the color of the leaves balances the salient hues of the timber structures, providing an unlikely visual pleasure amid the ever-growing concrete forest nearby.
“Go to Nan Lian Garden the next time you visit Hong Kong!” a friend assured me long before my second trip to the city. “It’s not that easy to find but it’s lovely,” she added.
Built less than a decade ago, Nan Lian Garden today not only provides a calm sanctuary for urban dwellers, but also a closer look at an authentic Tang Dynasty-style garden. It exudes a peaceful ambiance often found at zen gardens, known for their emphasis on miniature landscapes created through meticulous composition of trees, rocks and water. In fact the famous Japanese rock garden lends its history to the 7th – 10th century Tang Dynasty’s creation, bringing to the world such idea as scrupulously raked sand representing the flow of a river.
It was in Taipei almost one year ago when I first learned about Tang Dynasty artwork, known for its distinctive use of three-color glaze and for inspiring the Japanese arts years afterwards. Over the course of centuries, however, Chinese gardens had evolved in a different style and many people today are not aware of the Chinese roots of Japanese garden principles.
To the north of Nan Lian lies the main building compound in another enclosed area. A center of Mahayana Buddhism in Kowloon, Chi Lin Nunnery comprises of the nunnery itself, temple halls, gardens and a vegetarian restaurant. In the 1990s the entire compound was rebuilt according to Tang Dynasty architectural principles, including the absence of iron nails in its construction. Housing statues of revered figures in Buddhism, the 33,000 square meters nunnery offers a glimpse of Hong Kong’s firm grasp on its deep-rooted tradition amid modernity, a perennial ambivalence that makes it a true embodiment of ‘East meets West’.