People & Culture

Vancouver’s hidden yin-yang

Exploring the streets of Vancouver with bestselling author Bill Arnott in anticipation of his new book, A Perfect Day for a Walk

  • Apr 03, 2024
  • 1,227 words
  • 5 minutes
(Photo: Scott Alexander Photography; Cover design: Jazmin Welch/Arsenal Pulp Press)
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This text has been written in conjunction with the stories from A Perfect Day for a Walk: The Histories, Cultures, and Communities of Vancouver, on foot. 

My name is Bill Arnott. I live on Canada’s west coast in Vancouver. And while I’ve been privileged to explore much of the world, I love the fact I can discover new things every time I step out my front door. More than new builds or development, I seem to unearth treasure even in familiar laneways and streets. Simply fresh eyes, new perspectives. Most days I do this on foot. My preference being the methodical pace walking brings, a connection that accompanies the cadence of footfall. A sense of presence and being, the I am contained in the iamb.

One recent day resonates. A particularly sensory excursion in which I was walking a broad looping route through the city, incorporating new architecture and old, concrete and soil, with views ranging from glass and steel corridors to open expanses of mountain and sea.

Vancouver's False Creek and Science World. (Photo: Bill Arnott)
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I began, perhaps fittingly, at the birthplace of the city: Maple Tree Square. Where a township called Gastown, and Granville, changed its name to Vancouver. A tip of the tricorn to Captain George Vancouver, who sailed into what’s now Burrard Inlet on a summer’s day, 1792. But the Captain arrived behind Spanish explorers, who already mapped the area, met the locals, and were more or less done with the place. But the Spaniards welcomed Vancouver, gave him a feed with good wine, and shared their cartographical findings.

Of course the area was in no way newly discovered. Coast Salish Nations have lived here for at least five millennia. In this particular pocket of forest and shoreline, the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Peoples. But soon after that shipboard dinner in which Captain Vancouver no doubt reached for seconds while getting his head around the fact he too had placed second, new immigrants began to arrive from across the Pacific. And while Vancouver has rich history involving settlers from Polynesia, South Asia, and Japan, this story involves a transplant from China, and the first Classical Chinese Garden outside of Asia. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden.

From above, Vancouver is distinctly peninsular, a face-like jut of land, its profile looking west with a prominent chin, unruly hair, and the historical Garden precisely where a left eye would be. One with an emerald hue. A place I’d explored many times, yet knew there was more to uncover.

From that alleged birthplace of the city I made my way to Vancouver’s Chinatown and the Classical Garden, where a city worker was trimming bamboo, a bushel of leaves at his feet. Everything in this compact space feels significant. Which it is. Culturally, historically, geologically, artistically. A discombobulation of airiness and nature tucked in the urban.

Vancouver's Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. (Photo: Bill Arnott)
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The park’s namesake, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, has been labelled the “Father of Modern China.” Born in 1866, he completed his education internationally but returned to his country of birth to form the Nationalist Party, his objective to “unify and modernize” China. The party he created toppled the Qing, China’s last ruling Dynasty. Following this, the doctor, avoiding a vindictive Empress, came to Vancouver at the turn of the twentieth century. Not only fleeing Dynastic supporters but to raise money as well, funding for ongoing campaigns.

In the Garden, however, any notion of urgency or political intrigue dissolves. This is a space of harmonic peace, inspired by Ming Dynasty gardens in Suzhou. In a tidy chronological tie-in, this is also considered where Vancouver’s Chinatown began. Some feel civic plans to obliterate the neighbourhood took place in the mid-1900s, something prevalent in many large U.S. cities by way of freeway construction through immigrant neighbourhoods. Effectively government-sanctioned displacement. But here those plans were thwarted by community activists, the land transformed to this greenspace acknowledging the doctor, the culture, the neighbourhood, with a whiff of that same revolutionary initiative that brought Sun Yat-Sen here.

What I saw triggered each of the senses, precisely what Gardens like this are designed to instill. The manner of layout, planting and maintenance being equal parts science and art. Three types of Classical Chinese Gardens exist: Imperial, Monastery, and Scholar. This is a Scholar Garden, consistent with those created for Ming Dynasty Imperial Advisors, known as scholars. High-ranking administrators who would have private gardens like this adjacent to their homes, personal retreats for contemplation, meditation and planning.

A bust of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen in Vancouver's Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. (Photo: Bill Arnott)
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Each space represents landscape architecture in its purest execution. Nowhere can you see all of the garden at once. Each step reveals new vistas, in effect recreating a stroll through a gallery in which all the pieces are integral to nature. An undulating footpath turns gentle corners, forcing a slowing of pace while simultaneously keeping unwanted spirits at bay.

Historically, Classical Gardens contain each natural element of architectural composition: design, calligraphy, plant life, water, rock. With each symbol derived from Confucian and Tao principles, yin and yang, and the positive energy of chi, all present while striving for harmony.

The soft sound of the worker raking bamboo offered a gentle white noise, and I felt there was no way not to see it all as intended. The darkness and light of white-stuccoed walls with black-tiled roofs. Smooth stones set with coarse porcelain. Soft plants and hard stones. The stillness of earth with the trickle and flow of fresh water. Even the overall park. To the north, rounded curves of the yin. To the south, distinctly sharp edges associated with yang. A balance of opposites in a single continuum.

The Vancouver skyline looking north from False Creek. (Photo: Bill Arnott)
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The walkway edges a pond, climbs little hillocks in “false mountains.” Rocky cracks invite and retain welcome spirits. There’s limestone brought here from Lake Tai in the city of Suzhou. Transplanted chi. The pond too is not only a painting-like image but a mirror as well. Constructed with an opaque clay liner, its calm surface becomes a reflector. I saw buildings beyond – the “rest” of the city – inverted and flat on the water, their clarity stunning. I took pictures, unable to stop. A sensation of doing a handstand, landscape spun upside down. I saw jade in the rockwork, symbol of purity, prosperity too. A stone I’ve pursued around the Pacific, each earthen green its own narrative.

Plants, however, are sparse. Part of Classical Garden design. Greenery used not as features but to complement groomed space. More symbolism as well. Here a judicious balance of local flora displayed with traditional Chinese arrays. Maple and pine. Bamboo and ginkgo. Green renewal, symbols of resiliency and longevity. With a few tiny penjing plants, the artform predating bonsai. The Garden was even created using authentic tools and methods, virtually unchanged from those of the Ming Dynasty, fourteenth- to seventeenth-century. Components as well, actual Asian ginkgo, camphor and fir. With tiles made from riverbed pebbles shipped here from China. I wonder what the Empress would make of the stones’ emigration.

Leaving the Garden, I felt I’d re-entered the city, no longer visually inverted in water, apart from some shoreline reflections. Leaving a pleasant cling of that harmony. A space of dichotomous geography, politics, economics and wealth. Yet a perpetual striving for balance. Landscape and people, a demographic and cultural quilt, blanketing a city of green.

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