Q&A with Kathy Gibler of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden


Not only is the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden one of Chinatown’s most popular attractions, but it’s also a cultural beacon in Vancouver. As the garden celebrates its 25th anniversary, we sit down with Executive Director, Kathy Gibler, who maintains this ancient Chinese tradition amid Vancouver’s modern cityscape. Here, she reveals the most peaceful spot in the garden, how to feed koi with a gong and why the banana plant wears a winter coat.


Q: The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is 25 years old this year — how has it changed since 1986?

Kathy Gibler: There was a new addition in 2004, so it’s bigger. But it’s also grown from being unknown into one of Vancouver’s biggest attractions in Chinatown.


Q: Are there any parallels between modern Vancouver and the ancient Ming Dynasty?

KG: Like Vancouver, Suzhou, China -- where many gardens like this one existed -- was very cosmopolitan and cultural. Vancouver is also a nature-loving city. During the Ming Dynasty, China’s elite families lived in urban gardens, and these city people’s love of green space was vital, as was their reverence of nature.


Q: The difference between Western and Eastern gardens is striking.

KG: I had trouble at first with the fact that there are some spaces where nothing is growing. As a Western gardener, bareness is a difficult concept to grasp, but that’s the tradition. Empty space is meant to be harmonious.


Q: What is the garden’s best-kept secret?

KG: The way it can make you feel. When I first came as a visitor, simply walking in made me feel calm, cultured and beautiful. It’s like the world drops away. People are happy here.


Q: Where is your favourite spot in the garden?

KG: It really depends on my mood. If I’m looking for spiritual and mental refreshment, I go to the Jade Water Pavilion. It has such a tremendous view. When I’m looking for rejuvenation I like to be near the waterfall. It gives me energy and also makes me calm.


Q: Any pet plants?

KG: The one that amuses me the most is the banana plant. He wears a coat in the winter because he’s not made for this climate. But I also love the penjing -- it’s a miniature tree like the Japanese bonsai. Some of our penjing are 135 years old.


Q: If you had one piece of advice for first timers…

KG: I’d suggest they schedule at least one hour and take the tour. It’s not just walking around the garden naming plants, you learn all about the Ming Dynasty and the families that lived in similar gardens. The fish feeding is interesting, too. At 11:45am, we ring a big gong and actually lower it about a half-inch into the water. The vibrations instantly make the big koi run -- well, swim -- to get fed. It also brings out the ducks and turtles.


Q: What are the garden’s can’t-miss events?

KG: One of my favourites is the Chinese New Year Festival because it’s big and exciting. I also really like the Mid-Autumn Moon and the winter solstice, when the garden is lit up with hundreds of hand-made paper lanterns. It’s truly beautiful.


Q: What do you imagine the garden will look like in 25 years?

KG: We are a Canadian museum, and we have to remain authentic. I see us growing even more as an economic anchor and a cultural anchor in Chinatown. As Vancouver has become more diverse, we have, too. The fusion and blending of cultures is really exciting.

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