Friday, March 4, 2016

A Dream of a "Dream of Red Chambers" Garden for Chicago

A piece from a series of brush paintings by Qing Dynasty artist Sun Wen,
depicting a scene from Dream of the Red Chamber [Story of the Stone].
(Source: Wikipedia)

Every day I try to read one chapter of Dream of the Red Chamber [Story of the Stone]. To explain all the reasons why, I'd almost have to tell you what happens chapter by chapter, because it is such a rich evocation of life in elite Chinese society c. 1750. So instead I'll just talk about one of the reasons: the garden.

Much of the story takes place in a fairy-tale garden on the grounds of a massive estate within the capital, and it is in this environment that the story's hero, Baoyu ("precious jade"), has his adventures together with other [principally female] members of his clan.

During the early 2000s, I was involved with a cultural committee in Chicago together with many other people interested in China. It was at around the same time that Millennium Park opened, and I became quite interested in the idea that Chicago should build a Chinese garden as an emblem of the city's respect for its relationship with China. To my mind, the only suitable way to do this was to build a replica of the garden from Dream of the Red Chamber.

Not a bad idea for a city who's motto is Urbs in Horto - City in a Garden - right?

Shanghai: the Qingpu Daguanyuan
One reason I thought this would be so delightful, of course, is that the book doesn't actually show the garden; but it does describe it in loving detail.  Therefore, the effort to recreate the garden based on the text would represent a true devotion to Chinese culture. (I imagined all kinds of ways that there could be collaboration between people in Chicago and people in China in coming up with a design.)

The conversation was driven in part by a long-running effort to re-install a replica of a Chinese temple in Chicago -- the "Golden Temple" from the 1933 Century of Progress exhibition. (But that's a story for another day . . . . )

My case for creating a Red Chamber garden replica was buttressed by the fact that there have actually been projects in China -- essentially, theme parks -- to do just this. (See the Qingpu Daguanyuan.)

I had even identified the perfect location: Chinatown!

Of course, my idea would have involved the removal of a block of buildings in the center of the neighborhood, but to my mind having a public space there would actually serve to re-connect two parts of the neighborhood in a good way.

Chicago Chinatown, with proposed site of
Red Chamber garden shown in green.

It would have been the first thing people encountered as they arrived in Chinatown on the CTA elevated platform.  I actually met with a banker active in the community to talk about the possibilities. (He liked the concept but gently informed me that removing a bunch of existing buildings is no small matter . . . . )

I also had discussions with a landscape architect who was quite experienced in working with the City of Chicago. She also liked the idea, but she pointed out to me that in creating a garden, the installation is merely the first step: you need to have a funding plan to maintain it over the long haul. (Oh, I didn't think about that . . . !)

In fact, the City had just installed a park at the edge of Chinatown, along the Chicago River, in honor of a civic leader from Chinatown, Ping Tom. I saw Ping Tom Park as proof how great another new park would be for Chinatown, but I suppose in other people's eyes Chinatown now had all the green space it needed.

So the upshot was that the idea died a quiet death.

Today, the site I had my eye on is the location of a sparkling new branch of the Chicago Public Library. It's the first thing I see when I step of the EL onto the platform in Chinatown.

New Chinatown branch of Chicago Public Library

And Ping Tom park has some Chinese garden landscaping that is slowly, slowly, slowly coming into its own.

Ping Tom Park, on the northern edge of Chinatown

And as for me? I'll always have a chapter a day of Dream of the Red Chamber . . . .

An 1889 printed depiction of the garden from Dream of the Red Chamber.
(Source: Wikipedia)

Related posts

The city contains masterpieces of landscape architecture, with a strong focus on wildflowers.

(See One Word: Wildflowers on the Zero Carbon Chicago blog.)

I thought about Chagall's mural "The Four Seasons." It is located at Monroe and Dearborn, in the plaza of Chase Bank -- what some of us remember as 1st National Bank of Chicago.  I love it not just because it's beautiful, and because I so often have the opportunity to walk by it on my walks through that beautiful neighborhood, but also because of memories.

(See The Human Scale in Chicago on the Zero Carbon Chicago blog.)

Could I point to some analogous concepts and practices that I felt characterized the Chinese approach to being in the world? I rolled the idea around in my mind for a while, and then landed on the word "cultivation."

(See "Puja" in India; "Cultivation" in China )