On Friday April 12, the Chinese Program at Seton Hall traveled to the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden on Staten Island. It seems like an unlikely destination to learn about China, but Snug Harbor is actually the site of one of three authentic Chinese Scholar's Gardens in the United States, and it is the only one on the east coast. Chinese Scholar's Gardens show unique elements of Chinese philosophy and history and are a window into how ancient Chinese society viewed the natural world.
Snug Harbor was once a retirement community for sailors and privateers, but now it's a recreation area for the Staten Island community. Snug Harbor's decision to build a Chinese Scholar's Garden may seem strange from an outside perspective, but the garden was actually built to honor the history of the sailors who once called its grounds home. Many of the sailors and privateers spend their lives travelling in the far east and China was a common destination among them.
The garden was constructed in 1998 with the goal of authenticity. It was constructed entirely by Chinese artisans using materials they brought from China. The garden itself is an homage to the famous gardens of Suzhou, the home of the artisans. Chinese Scholar's Gardens show unique elements of Chinese philosophy and incorporate many elements of the natural world. Snug Harbor's garden boasts several great examples of Ghongshi rocks, an established bamboo forest, and an enormous koi pond. The plants in the garden all flower and fruit at different points throughout the year so that no matter what season one chooses to enjoy the garden in there is always something colorful.
Upon their arrival at Snug Harbor, the group from Seton Hall walked the grounds and admired the site's famous examples of Greek temple-style buildings. The groups also stopped by the statue of the man who created Snug Harbor, Robert Richard Randall. Randall was once a sailor himself, and he knew how they tended to be chewed-up and spit-out by the lifestyle. Against the wishes of his family, he left all the money in his will to build Snug Harbor as a retirement community for sailors. Although the land is no longer used for its original purpose, it is still serving the Staten Island Community as a community center and green space.
The group from Seton Hall split into two separate groups and toured Snug Harbor's Chinese Scholar's garden in two different orders. These gardens are built keeping the view of the garden from all vantage points in mind, so both groups saw the garden from completely different perspectives. The tour guides pointed out that all the wooden structures in the garden were built without using nails or glue in the traditional fashion. One of the most notable features of the garden is a circular mosaic in the main pavilion. The mosaic depicts two white cranes standing on green grass and is made of clear green glass and white porcelain. The tour guide revealed that the green glass came from beer bottles and the porcelain came from rice bowls. The glass was supposed to represent America and the porcelain should represent China. The mosaic was a gift from the artisans that represented Chinese and American friendship and harmony.
Following the tour of the Scholar's Garden the group from Seton Hall walked across the Snug Harbor grounds to view the center's Tuscan Garden. The Tuscan Garden was inspired by the garden of the Villa Gamberaia in Florence. It was constructed after the Chinese Scholar's Garden as a juxtaposition of eastern and western historical gardens. The Tuscan garden has four pools of water surrounding a fountain in its center and is quite simple in comparison to the Scholar's garden. It is symmetrical and full of geometric shapes. Seeing these two gardens was a highly visual way to observe the differences between eastern and western philosophy.