A piece of China opens in San Marino

Times Staff Writer

Tea drinkers descended on Inviting the Mountains Terrace to gaze at the San Gabriel peaks in the distance. Children romped across the arched Jade Ribbon Bridge. Men in cowboy hats and women in colorful silk jackets strolled along the Corridor of Water and Clouds, pausing to marvel at scholars’ rocks and moon gates.

After a week of invitation- and members-only events, the Garden of Flowering Fragrance opened to the public Saturday at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. Thousands of rapt admirers, who paid as much as $20 for the privilege, turned out for their first look at an attraction two decades in the making.

“We came to be a part of this Chinese garden’s beautiful opening,” said Cathy Lewis-Dougherty, a Studio City woman who traveled to China to adopt daughters Caitlin, 6, and Sarah, 4. “It looks like China,” she added approvingly.


Visitors began lining up for tickets before the 10:30 a.m. opening and spilled on to the grounds under an intermittently sunny sky. Although some waited near the entrance to watch a traditional Chinese New Year lion dance, most began streaming toward the garden, passing under red Chinese lanterns swinging from tree branches.

The main entrance to the garden lay at the end of a wall with a curved top meant to invoke a dragon’s spine. Beyond the opening, visitors were greeted with a sign reading “Another World Lies Beyond.” That world -- filled with more than 70 plant types, including native California live oaks and native Chinese weeping willows and camellias -- is modeled after the elegant gardens of Suzhou, an ancient city in China’s Jiangsu province, near Shanghai.

Curator June Li worked with a team of advisors and designers to ensure authenticity. The structures’ brown-painted wood, black roof tiles, white walls and poetic couplets reflect the style of classical gardens from the 16th and 17th century Ming dynasty. Liu Fang Yuan, the garden’s Chinese name, seeks to connect the garden to China’s scholarly traditions. Li has said visitors will be “stepping into a painting complete with poetic inscriptions.”

The garden’s $18.3-million initial phase covers about 3.5 acres of a planned 12-acre site. It features a 1.5-acre lake, seven pavilions, a teahouse and tea shop, a canyon waterfall and five hand-carved stone bridges. At one end of the largest bridge, a cormorant has stationed itself near a camellia tree at the Isle of Alighting Geese, from where it can closely observe the koi swimming in the Lake of Reflected Fragrance.

A $10-million bequest in 2001 from the estate of the late Peter Paanakker, a Los Angeles businessman, helped move the project beyond the pipe-dream stage. Major institutions, including the James Irvine and Annenberg foundations, also donated. But the Huntington depended on the Chinese American community’s help and money to complete the vision.

Air China flew in about 50 Chinese stone workers who spent weeks carving and laying tons of stone and pebbles. Most of the materials, including 850 tons of sculptural Tai Hu limestone rocks, were shipped from China courtesy of China Ocean Shipping (Group) Co.

Throughout the day, Chinese American families spanning three or four generations could be seen beaming as they posed for photographs. Their pride was palpable.

“It’s magnificent,” said Nelson Chin, a chiropractor who lives in Montebello. “We have a large Chinese community, and this garden brings China to Los Angeles.”

Chin was born in Los Angeles, but his mother and late father both emigrated from China. His mother, Anna, 80, pronounced the garden “so pretty and nice” and said it reminded her of her native land.

Even an afternoon shower failed to put a damper on the festivities, said Lisa Blackburn, a Huntington spokeswoman. All told, the facility welcomed about 4,000 guests.

“This is the culmination of many years of work,” said Suzy Moser, the Huntington’s assistant vice president for advancement. “To finally open this garden to the public is a really special celebration.”