Making home, making identity: Asian garden making in New Zealand, 1850s–1930s

A ‘garden breathes spirit, atmosphere’ into space, a garden makes place home.¹ Gardenmaking, as KatieHolmes, SusanMartin and KylieMirmohamadi observe, is ‘an act of memory and settlement’, one looking ‘back to recollected forms and forward to new growth’.² For most settlers to New Zealand, making a home through gardening meant recreating aspects of their European heritage. It meant introducing, as environmental historian Thomas Dunlap notes, ‘European grass growing in imitation of English meadows’. It involved recreating the lowlands of Scotland through gorse hedges and thistle. Or, it meant cultivating an environment to incorporate familiar flowers and trees, and new varieties too.³ This article, however, complicates this picture of settler garden making as a reminder of home in Europe. It instead examines those Europeans who fashioned gardens and landscapes as reminders of a home in Asia. By examining their hidden histories of garden making, it complicates assumptions made in New Zealand and overseas garden history literature about settlers invariably hailing from Europe and inevitably recreating gardens reminiscent of their home there.⁴ My findings also challenge preconceived notions that the only people making Asian gardens in New Zealand were Chinese migrants themselves.⁵ Equally, I do not discuss the popularity of Asian species or cultivars in settler society, as planted for purely aesthetic responses. Instead this article only examines planting to recall the places from which the varieties originated.⁶ In revealing this hidden history, so to speak, of Europeans brought up in Asia or having spent much of their life there and using garden making and landscape features to recall that history, this article extends the recent research of Duncan Campbell and others into the important connections New Zealand maintained with Asia, from the collection of rare and valuable Chinese objects through to settler recreations of Japanese games, and literary and aesthetic influences. To quote Campbell’s chapter title, itself taken from a work by the New Zealand/British writer Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923), this article gives spatial and visual life to ‘[w]hat lies beneath those strange rich surfaces’ of colonial New Zealand.⁷ Scraping away the surfaces of three of those gardens—two in colonial Canterbury, in New Zealand’s South Island, and one in its subtropical north of the 1920s and 1930s— reveals a rich patina of Asian influences colouring New Zealand’s garden history. My hope is for this article to mark the beginning of a project drawing together the warp of literature on settler garden making using Chinese plants and designs with the weft of the history of the garden making of the Chinese themselves.⁸
Journal Article
Type of thesis
Beattie, J.J. (2011). Making home, making identity: Asian garden making in New Zealand, 1850s–1930s. Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes, 31(2), 139-159.
Taylor & Francis
Publisher version