Thursday, October 01, 2009

Chinese garden is in Oamaru's Public Gardens

Sat, 12 Apr 2008
, Yvonne Cox, who found a way of celebrating the Chinese community.

Dunedin's authentic ‘‘scholar-official'' Chinese garden, Lan Yuan, is getting its final polish before opening next month.

It is the newest in a series of Chinese-style gardens throughout New Zealand. All except one celebrate sister-city friendships.

New Zealand's first Chinese garden is in Oamaru's Public Gardens. It is a symbol of the friendship between Oamaru and the large Chinese community in the Waitaki district, most of them descendants of the Central Otago gold miners.

The creation of this garden in 1988 is an inspiring, little-known story.

Right from the start, the catalyst for the garden's creation, and still working on its development, is an extraordinary Oamaru woman.

Yvonne Cox is 86, a tall, stylish and handsome woman. She has worked 38 years as promotions consultant for the Otago Daily Times in Oamaru and continues to go to her office.

In the 1980s, her husband was a public accountant working from home. Some of his clients were local Chinese; they would bring gifts of vegetables for Mrs Cox.

She found herself thinking about the big community of Chinese market gardeners at Totara, just south of Oamaru.

‘‘I was aware of three generations of Chinese in the district, and I wondered why these people had never been recognised within the community.

‘‘I thought, there will come a day when the sons and daughters of these market gardeners will all be educated professionals, and we won't have a Chinese settlement there any more. Somebody needs do something about it.''

That somebody, not surprisingly, was Mrs Cox. In 1987, she spoke to Jimmy Kong, a leader in the Chinese community at that time, regarding an idea she had.

He, in turn, called a meeting in the Totara School hall. About 40 Chinese men attended, ‘‘with two women in the kitchen making tea''.

Mrs Cox spoke of her idea, thinking a weekend festival might be an appropriate celebration, ‘‘but I needed to have the support of the Chinese community so that I could ask for advice as to what was culturally acceptable''.

Two weeks later, representatives of the Chinese community came to her with a proposal for opening night: they would provide a Chinese chef and a team of young people dressed in black and white to work as waiters.

They envisaged a 10-course banquet for 400 people at $40 a head to be held in the new recreation centre in Oamaru.

Three days later, with not a single advertisement, all the tickets had been sold. Half the profits went to the Totara School for equipment and the other half was held in trust by the Waitaki District Council; there were already ideas for a celebration garden.

‘‘What was to be the Whitestone Chinese Festival weekend in May 1988 turned out to be a nine-day event, and it paid for itself,'' Mrs Cox said. ‘‘People from all over the South Island brought ideas and artefacts - a man came from Central with articles from the Chinese huts in the gold fields; they were on display in the Brydone Hotel.''

In the two years after Mrs Cox first approached the Chinese community, three Chinese came on to the 1990 sesquicentennial celebration committee.

‘‘Never had there been a single Chinese person on any public committee in Waitaki. They simply said they had never been invited.''

In 1990, the Waitaki district offered 53 sesquicentennial festival events, the largest number for a town of its size in New Zealand. Mrs Cox suggested a Chinese festival, and again the Chinese Association offered another $40 banquet for another huge sellout crowd.

Once more, money went back to the Totara School, but this time half the profits were added to the previous trust fund to make a beginning on a commemorative Chinese garden.

A local architect, Bruce Parker, was consulted, as was New Zealand Chinese historian Dr James Ng, in Dunedin.

Graeme Hall, then parks and reserves manager, visited the Chinese Friendship Garden in Sydney and came back enthused with ideas. The garden committee consisted of Mrs Cox, Waitaki Mayor Duncan Taylor, Mr Hall, and four Chinese from the Totara community: Wing Yee, Bill Lee, Martyn Tonkin, and Jim Kong.

The first step was designing a gateway and procuring appropriate roof tiles from China.

Immediately behind the entrance is a wall designed traditionally to deflect evil spirits, which, in Chinese lore, move only in straight lines.

‘‘In my mind,'' Mrs Cox said, ‘‘I could see a dragon on that 14ft wide, 7ft high wall, so I got in the car and drove to Dunedin, found the man at Otago University in charge of ceramics and asked if there was a Chinese ceramic artist in any of his classes. He burst out laughing and said no, he hadn't.''

Three weeks later, however, there was a fax on her desk recommending Christine Black, the previous year's ceramics honours student.

Mrs Cox sent her to Dr Ng, ‘‘for guidance as to the correct dragon''. Eventually the design and cost came in: not much short of $10,000.

‘‘So I got in my car again and went down to Nick Smith at the ODT. I said I would like to know if the company could sponsor this dragon. He said, ‘You give me one good reason why we should spend $10,000 on a Chinese dragon to go on a wall in Oamaru, the week we're buying a new printing press'.''

Mrs Cox had more than one good reason, and today the dragon can be seen at the entrance to the Chinese garden.

For the most part, the design for the garden has come from the local Chinese community. The first stage involved building the gateway and enlarging a small pond to create a little lake.

The excavated soil and truckloads of local boulders created the mountainscapes essential to any Chinese garden design.

Initial planting included bamboo, and the mature weeping willows by the lake, Salix babylonica, that had their origins in China.

The second stage involved expanding the lake and preparing the site for the final features, now in the planning stage: a tea house by the lake and an Oamaru stone wall to separate the Chinese garden from the 1960s Oriental garden beyond.

On November 18, 1995, at the completion of the first stage, the Chinese Garden was officially opened by Mr Huang Guifang, Ambassador of the People's Republic of China.

He planted a Chinese tree; Paulownia tomentosa is native to east Asia and known to the Chinese as the elephant tree.

In a nice coincidence, Mrs Cox's son Laurence now works in China. He came home for a visit late last year with his Chinese wife, Ming, and her mother came too.

Naturally, they visited the Chinese garden and immediately recognised the thriving elephant tree.

Mrs Cox's best Christmas present arrived on December 18, when her Chinese granddaughter, Davina Yvonne, was born in Dunedin.

That would make it just 20 years since her first move to salute the Chinese community in the Waitaki District.

No comments: