Hidden amongst the shops and cafes of colorful Chinatown at 578 Carrall Street, the tranquil walled Dr. Sun Yat-Sen is a little oasis in the city of Vancouver, BC. Popular with locals looking for a quiet stroll, tourists searching for an interesting attraction, and film crews scouting for locations that look like China, the Chinese Garden is top of most people’s lists for a shot of nature in the heart of the city.
Named one of the World’s Top City Garden by National Geographic, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden was the first full-scale classical Chinese Garden to be built outside of China. Spring and fall bring the most vibrant colors to the garden but covered walkways and picturesque pavilions make it a favorite destination at any time of the year.
History of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden
Standing on the site of Vancouver’s original Chinatown near False Creek, the garden is located in an area that has housed a variety of businesses from a sawmill to brothels, an opera house, opium factory and even The Great Northern Railway train station until it closed in 1920.
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden looks traditional but it was actually built in 1986 as part of the Expo ‘86 celebrations. Fifty-three master craftsmen came over from Suzhou with 965 crates of materials. They constructed the garden by hand in 13 months using authentic 14th Century methods, which meant that no screws, glue or any power tools were used.
At the time, it was the first full-scale Classical Chinese Garden of its kind built outside of Asia and it is modeled on the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) gardens from the Chinese city of Suzhou.
Planning for the 2.5 acre Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park began back in 1976 and it opened in 1983 as a free public space that is administered by the Vancouver Parks Board. To help pay for the public park, the ½ acre Classical Garden opened in 1986 (and was later expanded in 2004) and is now managed by the non-profit Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden Society.
The garden is named after Chinese revolutionary Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925), who is known as the “Father of Modern China”. He was educated in the West as a doctor but returned to China to unify his country. Dr Yat-Sen visited Vancouver several times in the early 20th Century, staying nearby to where the garden now stands in his honor.
What to See There
Based on the Taoist principle of yin and yang, every element of the garden is symbolic and balanced. Highlights include the koi fish in the jade green pond, a unique collection of imported tai hu rock from Lake Tai in China, 150-year old miniature trees and 43 latticed ‘leak’ windows.
Classical Chinese Gardens come in three styles (Imperial, Monastery and Scholarly) and Vancouver’s version follows the Scholar style, which includes high walls to prevent distraction from the outside world, and features a winding path that zigzags to give visitors more thinking time (and wards off evil spirits).
Architecture, rocks, water, plants and calligraphy are all key elements of Classical Chinese Gardens and free guided tours are available (with your admission fee) to learn more. Plants in the garden are chosen for their symbolism and include gingko to represent China, maple for Canada, bamboo to represent flexibility and pine to show longevity.
How to Visit Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park is a public garden that features a lily pond, pagoda and winding pathways — it’s open to the public during daylight hours and has no admission fee. The museum part of the park has an admission fee of $12 ($14 May until September) and is open daily, apart from Mondays from November 1 to April 30. Explore independently or take one of the 45-minute guided tours that are included in your admission fee to find out more about symbolism in the garden.
Entrance to the garden is at 578 Carrall Street — the public entrance is via the gate in the courtyard and the museum entrance is through the door next to it. Chinatown is within walking distance of most downtown hotels and is served by TransLink buses and the SkyTrain system, which stops at the nearby Chinatown-Stadium station.
Educational events run throughout the year and the garden hosts musical events, art exhibits and author talks, as well as festivals, Halloween celebrations and special one-off concerts. Traditional tea service, calligraphy workshops and other cultural events take place year-round, but the garden’s biggest celebration comes during the Chinese Lunar New Year in February. Lanterns in the Gardens lights up the garden for three weekends of fun, when the garden is magically transformed for this traditional Chinese festival.
What to See Nearby
Bustling Chinatown is literally on the doorstep of the garden and there you’ll find everything from traditional tea shops to trendy bars, cafes and boutiques. Our guide to Chinatown has everything you need to know to plan your visit to one of North America’s largest Chinatowns! Shopping is one of the major draws — explore the buzzy boutiques and then take a break in the quiet garden for a moment of reflection.