How’s the Serenity?

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Author: Jacob Hill

There’s an amazing Chinese garden in Dunedin, New Zealand. But why is there a Chinese garden here? Well, if you’ve read my previous post, you’d know that southern Chinese made their way to Australia to search for gold. But why did the Chinese come to New Zealand?


The Chinese first arrived in New Zealand from Australia in 1865. Almost all of them were gold miners. But the Otago Goldrush had died down by 1864. The party was over, the miners had packed up and left, so why did the Chinese arrive? The answer: they were invited by the people of Dunedin.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Dunedin's Garden of Enlightenment. But why does Dunedin have a Chinese garden? And what makes this one so special?
Dunedin’s Garden of Enlightenment. But why does Dunedin have a Chinese garden? And what makes this one so special?

This was strange; The Chinese were well aware of Europeans and their attitudes towards the Chinese. After all, many of them had gone to California, Victoria and New South Wales (often going home in-between to cajole their family to come with them). They had copped racist abuse and even been attacked by European miners. Now, all of a sudden, they’ve been invited to come and do the things that made them a target for attack?

The people of Dunedin had a pretty simple reason: The Otago region was propped up by the mining boom. But when the West Coast promised more gold as the pickings in Otago got slim, many of the miners made their way across the Alps. The economic hole left by disappearing miners threatened to implode the regional economy. So, they decided to invite the Chinese to fill the gap, at least until a more stable and/or diversified economy could be established.

The Chinese took up the offer and picked up where the other miners left off. They engaged in all sorts of mining, ranging from simple picking to more advanced (and expensive) hydraulic sluicing and quartz mining (you find quartz, you find gold). The Chinese miners found lots of alluvial gold, but some were tempted to ‘live it up’, which meant splurging their fortunes and condemning them to mining. But others proved to be more financially disciplined and sent their gold back to China.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Fairfield, Otago. One minute a grassland, next minute a skatepark.
Fairfield, Otago. One minute a grassland, next minute a skatepark.

Thereafter, Chinese came directly from China (mostly Canton) to Otago. By 1880, 5,000 Chinese people were in New Zealand, and most of them were in Otago. It’s interesting to note that these new immigrants held strong prejudices against Europeans, despite not interacting with them in the goldfields. It’s possible that stories from relatives returning from the goldfields across the years coloured their views. Then again, China was being ripped apart by several European empires, so the Chinese probably harboured a resentment regardless of whatever their relatives said.


The new immigrants had no intention of staying in New Zealand longer than they needed to. They wanted to get some money and return to China. But that isn’t how things played out. Some found love and settled. Others made their way to the West Coast once the Otago gold dried up. Others still moved into other industries. Just like in Australia, the Chinese engaged in labour-intensive, underpaid work settlers didn’t want to do, including building railways. The Railway system in New Zealand was built on a bedrock of Chinese labour.

Others still stayed and began farming, just like in Victoria. But Chinese produce was generally superior compared to British produce. This is because practically every Chinese person had a green thumb – they would grow all their own vegetables and were experts at it.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Queenstown Garden, Otago. While a lovely garden (even in Winter), it's quite European in nature.
Queenstown Garden, Otago. While a lovely garden (even in Winter), it’s quite European in nature.

The British settlers generally weren’t self-reliant vegetable-wise, so when they tried to cultivate the New Zealand landscape, they had difficulty. Different soil, lack of experience and abundance of pests resulted in many failed crops. Seeing the need for vegetables, the Chinese set up fresh produce stalls (particularly along Great King St) and provided vital nutrition to settlers in Dunedin.

They’re also responsible for making Otago the original ‘fruit bowl’ of New Zealand. Before the Chinese arrived, Otago was a vast grassland at the foot of the Southern Alps. But as they searched for gold, they planted fruit trees wherever they went – the Chinese love fresh fruit. But the trees also ensured there were abundant sources of food no matter where they went. Suddenly, the grasslands were choked with fruit.

Otago became an important agricultural centre in New Zealand (it’s since become an important centre for livestock and dairy farming). The Chinese continued to produce the majority of fruit and vegetables in Australiasia until the 20th Century. But the Chinese aren’t just expert farmers – they’re excellent gardeners in general.

21st Century Jacobsweg: The Courtyard in the Garden of Enlightenment.
The Courtyard in the Garden of Enlightenment.


The Chinese are great at creating gardens – they’ve been creating gardens for thousands of years. But unlike British gardens, Chinese gardens are a place for reflection and contemplation. Scholars and government officials have sought refuge in these gardens for centuries still their minds, submit themselves to the flow of life and surrender to peace.

These gardens are not just flowers, trees and paths – they incorporate waterfalls, lakes, ducks, fish, pavilions, bridges, statues and stones. Ancient philosophies permeate every inch of the garden. Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist values (and a hefty dose of feng shui) are interwoven in an incredibly complex matter, so much so that even someone familiar with these philosophies can have trouble decoding everything.

But I suppose that’s the point: If everything was spelt out, there wouldn’t be much left to contemplate!

It can be hard for a western mind to understand, but just as an example, the concept of yin-yang is prominent. Gardens are meticulously designed so that water, plants and buildings all complement each other, while at the same time highlighting their contrasts.

Yin-yang is evident in how shadows and light play off each other, the majesty of a statue compared to the elegance of an unfashioned rock, the winding path up the hill that overlooks the jagged zigzag of the bridge across the flat lake, the waterfall sending ripples against the still water, the hidden treasures hiding in the open and the manmade moon gates and pavilions set amongst the natural landscape.

Even everything outside the garden is a feature within the garden – the peace within as opposed to the chaos without! And all of this changes depending on the time of day, the weather, and your mood: Different features will be highlighted and your perception will be naturally altered.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Instead of ruining the vista, the tower outside the garden can be considered a feature of the garden and enhance the atmosphere!
Instead of ruining the vista, the tower outside the garden can be considered a feature of the garden and enhance the atmosphere!

These gardens can make you feel a million miles away and utterly at peace. It’s a great shame that you have to travel all the way to China to experience such beautiful gardens.

Or do you?


Dunedin has one such Chinese garden. But not just any Chinese garden – it’s one of three ‘genuine’ Chinese gardens outside of China ( the other two are in Vancouver, Canada, and Portland, Oregon).

But why does Dunedin get the Southern Hemisphere’s only Chinese garden? Well, partly because Shanghai is a sister city, but also because of the significant Chinese influence from the very beginning of Dunedin’s history. There are families with links to the founding of Dunedin who have proudly called themselves ‘Kiwi Chinese’ for generations. Oh, and with New Zealand’s oldest university, a garden that is often used by scholars and thinkers was a no-brainer for Dunedin!

The Dunedin Garden of Enlightenment was opened in 2008, but you’d be mistaken to think it has been think for hundreds of years. But that’s because centuries of expertise guided the Shanghainese who designed it, built it, shipped it across the Pacific and reconstructed it. It’s 100% authentic, like a little 2500m2 enclave of China.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Smack-bang in the centre of town, the garden stands apart from the Scottish facade, but acknowledges the Chinese heritage of town.
Smack-bang in the centre of town, the garden stands apart from the Scottish facade, but acknowledges the Chinese heritage of town.

The Chinese name for the garden is 兰园 (lán yuán), although technically its name is 蘭園. These characters are just the traditional versions of 兰 and 园, but it makes a difference to use these traditional forms rather than the simplified versions. Why? Because the Chinese people that this garden is honouring arrived long before the Communists instituted writing reforms in 1949.

As a sidenote, that’s why Taiwan doesn’t use the simplified characters – The Communists never gained control of Taiwan, thus the reforms were never implemented. Also, Hong Kong and Macau still use traditional characters as they only given to China in 1997 and 1999 respectively.

Anyway, 兰园 is a pretty interesting name. 园 means ‘garden’ or ‘courtyard’, but 兰 has a few meanings. First, it can mean ‘enlightenment’ (hence the English name of the garden), but it’s also the final character in the Chinese name for New Zealand (新西兰). It’s also in the name for the Yulan magnolia, a very popular flower in Shanghai. Some things just can’t be expressed well in English!

Overall, I enjoyed the Garden of Enlightenment more than the Dunedin Botanical Gardens – but enjoying isn’t the right word. Whenever I took a trip through the more British-style gardens, I was mesmerised by the aesthetics and the beauty found in the world, losing myself in the scenery. But the Chinese garden instigated an introspection of my character and my view of the world, which was incredibly impactful even for someone who reflects a lot.


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