Last week, OHNY intern Elis wrote about Christ Church New Brighton, her first stop on a tour of Staten Island’s North Shore. For this week’s Field Trip Friday, Elis writes about the New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden, a garden of the Staten Island Botanical Garden located in the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, the second stop of the Staten Island tour.

Koi Pond

The Chinese Scholar’s Garden is one of the hidden treasures of Staten Island, in a unique location. It is part of the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, a complex of 28 buildings that was originally founded in 1801 by Robert Richard Randall as a home for retired sailors. Quiet, and surrounded by bamboo and trees, the New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden is a wonderful place for escape and contemplation.

Bamboo path

The Garden consists of eight pavilions with winding paths, hidden grottos, waterfalls, and fishponds. Designed by Zu Gwongwu, it is based on Suzhou Couple’s Retreat Garden, a Qing Dynasty garden. Affectionately named Ji Xing Yuan (the Garden of Poetic Pleasure), the Chinese Scholar’s Garden is the only authentic scholar’s garden in the United States. Individual components were crafted in China and assembled at Snug Harbor. The assemblage, a largely volunteer based process, took one year to design and six months to construct on Staten Island. The Garden as whole is an inspiring space, but the true beauty of the Garden is in its details. Each decorative element is symbolic and meaningful, meant to be an experience in itself.


As you approach the garden, the sound of the Garden’s waterfalls is the first thing you hear. The sound of flowing water, believed to stimulate visitors’ experience, is a common feature of Scholar Gardens. In the Garden, waterfalls connect a number of ponds within the pavilions to a larger koi-fish pond outside the complex. Fishponds are also common features of Scholar Gardens. Fish, who live without conscious thought and whose behavior is always a response to nature and their natural environment, are believed to be the purest symbol of Taoist philosophy.

Claire Wilson, Jessica Mak, and Jailee Rychen

A single path winds through the Garden, weaving in and out of its pavilions. The path leads to hidden grottos, which in classical Chinese poetry are often said to be gateways to mystical places.  The uneven quality of the path coupled with the insertion of small bridges with smaller steps, forces visitors to slow down, take time to contemplate their surroundings and enjoy the view. After all, walking through the garden is meant to be calm and contemplative.

Rockery and two-crane mosaic

This rock formation is called Lingering in Clouds Peak, a name meant to evoke a sense of escape and a retreat into nature. It has both aesthetic and symbolic value – it is a beautiful sculpture and at the same time a representation of nature’s awesome power and mystery. The two-crane mosaic, a symbol of longevity, was the last item to be assembled in the Garden. On the final day of construction in 1999, a large celebration was held for the all-Chinese crew. At the end of the celebration, the construction crew broke the used bowls and bottles to create the materials for the mosaic. Each piece serves as a well-wish from the crew to the Garden. On sunny days, sunlight gives the pine trees in the mosaic, made from the glass of broken bottles, a shimmery look.

Above, lantern with hand-painted illustrations and Chinese calligraphy

Chinese calligraphy, believed to be the highest form of art, is present throughout the pavilion, signaling the distinguished nature of this space.

Fruit tree

The Garden is also a home to a beautiful orchard. In particular, there are a number of plum trees, which represent scholars’ strengths and virtues, particularly perseverance and patience.

"Leaky window"

These windows are affectionately called “leaky windows” for their purely aesthetic nature. They are not meant to shield visitors from the sun or rain, but to frame and give a glimpse into the adjacent courtyard, to call the visitor over to the other side.

The Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden is a participating site in the 2012 OHNY Weekend. It is just a short bus ride from the Staten Island St. George Ferry Terminal. In addition to being the home of the Chinese Scholar’s Garden, Snug Harbor is also home to a Musical Hall, the Art Lab playhouse, the Council on the Arts & Humanities for Staten Island, the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, the Noble Martime Collection, SHARP (Snug Harbort Artist Residency Program), Staten Island Children’s Museum, and a collection of the Staten Island Museum.



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