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Asian growth

Can you tell the difference between a formal Chinese garden and formal Japanese garden?

To the average American, they’re practically identical: Each has its share of pagodas, formal plantings, viewing stones, elaborate paving, water features and calligraphy.

The Chinese were centuries ahead of the Japanese in creating such formal gardens, just like the English were far ahead of American gardens.

Symbolism, too, is a very strong element in both garden styles. So how can a person tell them apart, other than the different languages?

My favorite Japanese garden is the one in Portland, Ore., resting on a hillside near the city’s famed rose garden, artfully displaying several formal styles in one setting. Plus, the mood is often enhanced by the magical sound of a flute being played by a musician on the wooded hillside.

And so when I visited my youngest son and his fiance last week in Portland, I told him I was going to see it, rain or no rain.

“It’s beautiful,” Morgan agreed, “but have you seen the Chinese garden yet?”

When we arrived at Lan Su Yuan (“Garden of Awakening Orchids”), the pamphlet that came with the tickets asked visitors to visualize it as “a Chinese landscape painting on a long, horizontal hand scroll, slowly unfolding to reveal its layered beauty of both nature and culture.”

Created by artisans in Portland’s sister city, Suzhou, China, it’s a showcase for more than 500 species of plants and trees, but it’s easy for visitors to overlook them while gaping at the nine elaborate structures surrounding Zither Lake.

And oh, the names! There’s “The Tower of Cosmic Reflections” (a two-story building where visitors may rest for tea and dim sum) and “The Celestial House of Permeating Fragrance” (the scholar’s study) plus “The Hall of Brocade Clouds” and a symbolic barge called “Painted Boat in Misty Rain.”

Then there’s a rather odd-sounding “Knowing the Fish Pavilion” that involves a discussion about the supposed happiness of fish between two philosophers.

Occupying a city block at NW Third Avenue and Everett Street in Portland’s Chinatown, the garden was created in Suzhou, assembled there, and then shipped to America with a team of 65 artisans for installation on what was once an asphalt parking lot.

All of the buildings were created using joinery, meaning no nails or bolts were used in their construction. But when this ancient form of construction met up with American earthquake safety requirements, adaptations were made. Steel rods reinforce posts, roof tiles are glued in place, and (concealed) bolts and nails are used in other strategic locations.

Docents are on hand to lead tours of the garden, explaining to the uninitiated that “Chinese gardens are an interpretation of man’s relationship with the natural world and with the universe at large.”

It opened in September 2000 with the assistance of a dedicated corps of volunteers and the efforts of Mayor Vera Katz, who spearheaded a drive to raise $12.8 million for its completion.

So now, for Portland residents and visitors, it’s easy to see the similarities and differences between classical Chinese and Japanese gardens. And whenever I visit my son, I have another favorite garden in that city.

Dick Tracy is an award-winning garden writer and photographer, Master Gardener and former president of the Foothills Horticulture Society. You can write him in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.

For further information on the Portland Classical Chinese Garden, write P.O. Box 3706, Portland, OR 97208; phone (503) 228-8131; or go to on the Internet.

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