Louise McDaidGardens in Hong Kong: Nan Lian Garden

In Hong Kong recently, I was pleasantly surprised to find some charming green refuges amongst the cheek-by-jowl skyscrapers and chaotic mass of shoppers. It’s a fast-paced exciting city for many reasons, gardens aren’t one of them. But for anyone wanting respite from the shopping frenzy or who, like me, would rather salivate over botanic pleasures than the latest Gucci handbag, it offers some tempting garden delights.

One of these is Nan Lian Garden, conveniently located by the MTR station at Diamond Hill, Kowloon and open to the public free of charge. It is government owned but managed by the adjoining Chi Lin Nunnery to which the income from operating venues in the garden goes.

Entrance garden harmony and balance

Entrance garden harmony and balance

Immediately apparent is how well groomed the garden is. The entrance garden beds are immaculately manicured, setting the scene and preparing visitors for what lies beyond. I admired one of the entrance beds in particular with its tree foliage combinations and balance between the rocks and trees. As I took in the scene its harmony calmed me and the racket of nearby traffic was forgotten at once.

Entering the garden itself, this calmness continued. Although not visible in its entirety from any one point, my first impression was a lush garden of green, not a flower in sight, with glimpses of timber buildings, water, rocks and intricately paved pathways. Nan Lian is designed to principles of Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) poet, Lu Zongyuan, who believed “the design for a garden should suit the people who use it, taking into consideration the environment and for the celebration of the beauty of nature”.

Spring Hill Waterfall cascading into Lotus Pond forms part of the 170m long water flow

Spring Hill Waterfall cascading into Lotus Pond forms part of the 170m long water flow

As in nature, the garden has areas of dense planting with others more sparse. There are over 60 species of trees which are mostly evergreen and the predominant plant type. They are selected and grown to show off their seasonal changes, evident by the focus on display of their crown and trunk. This is exemplified by the cloud-pruned specimen trees, mostly Buddhist pines but other pines too and Bougainvillea glabra variegata. The cloud-pruned trees feature throughout the entire garden, grouped into scenes or alone to be admired.

Cloud pruned Bougainvillea glabra variegata

Cloud pruned Bougainvillea glabra variegata

Amongst the other tree species were many types of ficus. The Banyon Grove displays the sculptural entwining banyon roots and trunks with a dense canopy providing shade. On a grey rainy day this area was a little gloomy but it also had mysterious qualities. Not far away the vermillion Zi-Wu bridge and gold Pavilion of Absolute Perfection are radiant in their colour, the pavilion adding a touch of ‘bling’, and perfect with so much dark green nearby, which can be dull on its own.

Vermillion Zi-Wu bridge leading to Pavilion of Absolute Perfection

Vermillion Zi-Wu bridge leading to Pavilion of Absolute Perfection

The Pavilion of Absolute Perfection is in the Lotus Pond, with two Zi-Wu bridges connecting it to the shore. The Lotus Pond is the smaller pond in the west of the garden, the Blue Pond the larger one in the east. The ponds which form part of the 170m long water body stretching west to east. They are connected by brooks and waterfalls, the moving water brings life and motion to the garden as well as sound. One quite high water cascade creates a ‘water curtain’ disguising a restaurant behind and masking traffic noise.

Restaurant disguised behind the water cascade

Restaurant disguised behind the water cascade

The garden is designed for strolling with many places to pause, reflect and enjoy the views. Classical timber structures around the garden are positioned at varying heights so views can be appreciated from different angles. The pavilions, bridges and terraces all offer viewing platforms. Views encompass both complete scenes of ponds, waterfalls, trees and rocks as well as individual feature elements such as an exquisite tree or magnificent rock.

Petrified wood-rock

Petrified wood-rock

Many of the rocks are large single feature pieces, although smaller individual ones are nestled amongst low plants or grouped to form a mass. In all cases they predominate throughout the garden in so many styles. The petrified wood-rock is spectacular with its metallic sheen and mottled colours splendid in the rain. Rock also features in edging and walls. Pathways and ponds are edged in smooth round stones either in a row or formed into a low wall. Waterfalls flow over stepped rock formations and random stone pieces are used as steppers. One of my favourite places was the natural style path of steppers in grass meandering off into the distance – it beckoned me to jump the fence and follow to find where it leads.

'Natural' garden path

‘Natural’ garden path

Alas, I paid heed to the list of restricted activities so stayed on the ‘right’ side of the fence. ‘No frolicking or running’, ‘No climbing on rocks’, ‘No bawling or brawling’, ‘No pets’ – just a few of the restrictions that suggest there’s no fun to be had here at all! But these rules serve to keep the emphasis on the garden itself as a place of tranquillity. With no special costumes allowed either there are no distractions by bridal party photography sessions – the gardens are for visitors to enjoy purely for the garden.

Entrance to Chi Lin Nunnery

Entrance to Chi Lin Nunnery

This is a charming garden to visit with a remarkable level of care and attention to detail. I found it intimate and restful, its precise formation portraying restraint and inviting contemplation – an appealing tranquil contrast to the vacuum and excesses of large hectic shopping malls.

For anyone interested in gardens and design there is plenty more to see than I’ve described here, and I’ve posted a GardenDrum Gallery showing a few more highlights.

My next blog will cover Kowloon Walled City Park and Hong Kong Park.

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Louise McDaid

About Louise McDaid

I’m a landscape designer and enjoy working with most anything botanical in nature. Based in Sydney Australia, I am also editor of Landscape Outlook, journal of the Australian Institute of Landscape Designers and Managers (AILDM) and write on gardens and their design. I have been guest editor of GardenDrum while Catherine escaped for an overdue and well-earned holiday.

One thought on “Gardens in Hong Kong: Nan Lian Garden

  1. I wish I had known of these gardens when I visited Hong Kong some years ago. Although I do find it hard to really feel for a garden when it is set up to be viewed from behind a fence, rather than experienced. But realistically I know that in a place with a population density like HK, it would quickly be loved to death, with nothing left if everyone were allowed to tread that magical looking path. I remember being in one of the parks there and being so weary and footsore that I became obsessed with the idea of my bare feet touching the cool, soft grass on the other side of the little fence, with its ‘Keep off the grass’ warnings. Only my young daughters’ terror, and pleading that I would be arrested on the spot kept me in check!

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