Garden becomes symbol of homecoming

For just over a month the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden will host Coming Home: Traditions of Chinese New Year, which will both educate and allow visitors to experience the traditions and customs surrounding this important celebration. The celebration kicks off on Jan. 17 at the Garden.

Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, one of the oldest and most important times in Chinese culture, leads to the world’s biggest human migration as millions of Chinese people from all walks of life and places in the world head home, united by their sense of family and togetherness.

“Family really is at the heart of it,” says Susan Ma, head of education at the Garden. “If you say Chinese New Year, family is what immediately comes to mind.”

A traditional setting

The festivities of the New Year aren’t limited just to China, with one of the many places to participate or simply take in the celebrations being the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. The Garden is hosting an exhibit for the New Year, but it’s not a simple walk-through presentation of the culture.

Susan Ma – Photo by Tosh Kitagawa

“It’s not a traditional museum,” says Ma. “The Garden is a living artifact: it was built according to Ming Dynasty techniques, with all of the materials brought from China.”

The Garden is the first of its kind outside of China, built with the same precision and architectural style that represents the traditions of the Chinese culture.

“We want to pay homage to this fact,” says Ma. “The exhibit is Coming Home because these classical gardens were homes. We’re bringing in a family feast table, family altars, decorating the house as they would have been decorated back then.”

The main pillars of Chinese New Year are decorating, eating, connecting and celebrating. The Garden will be a source to experience all four appoaching the New Year. There will be altars, effigies and other visual parts of the exhibit, as well as an altar filled with symbolic foods to sample. On Jan. 29 the Year of the Rooster Temple Fair will feature arts and crafts, traditional music and the opportunity to participate in age-old customs like receiving lucky red envelopes from elders.

“We live in a world where information is readily available,” says Ma. “But what we really want people to recognize is that, though we are looking at Chinese culture, people are more alike than different. Learning and doing something with it, even something as small as writing down a wish for the wish tree, on a larger level it gives you a chance to find yourself in the exhibit.”

Bringing people together

For Ma, these celebrations have always been a part of her life. Every year, no matter what, everyone would come together and celebrate.

“I remember, even if you were mad at each other, you had to come and be together for the feast and make nice,” says Ma. “You have to put your grudges aside because that’s not the theme you want to set going into the new year.”

Chinese New Year is such a widespread and widely celebrated time that one can see aspects of the Chinese culture and Lunar New Year celebrations all around the city. But while the Garden’s exhibition might not be the only place to take in the festivities, the space itself adds another dimension to the experience.

“Symbols and meanings have endured and are widespread,” says Ma, “but I think it’s important to return to your roots. There is something about being in this physical space that’s very transformational. It’s designed and built in such a way that exudes certain feelings. It shows more insight into how families lived in these places.”

Though Ma grew up and continues to be a part of a culture that celebrates the coming of a new year in their own traditional ways, that doesn’t mean they all have radically different stances on the beginning of another year.

“All of the stories and symbols that exist for this are universal,” says Ma. “Every dish means something. There are things that carry weight no matter what your background is. We wish for success, good health, peace. We hope. They are quintessential human things.”

For more information, visit