Forbidden Gardens (Gone)
For a time, America had two miniature China attractions, neither of them near a Chinatown: the notorious Chinese government-run Splendid China in Florida (now closed), and the relatively unknown Forbidden Gardens in Texas. The latter invites tourists to "Discover the mysteries of Imperial China," but the world's oldest civilization has proved no match for the blistering sun and hothouse humidity of south Texas. Still, we recommend visiting F.G., a unique sight for Texas (or anywhere)....
Forbidden Gardens was built in 1997 at the pleasure of Ira P. H. Poon, AKA "Mr. Poon," a Hong Kong real estate mogul who wanted people of Asian descent (including his teenage children) to know something of Asian culture besides firecrackers and kung-fu. Mr. Poon lives in Seattle, but preferred constructing the sprawling exhibit somewhere outdoors, open year-round, on flat, cheap land, where there was a large Asian population. Houston, 25 miles east of Forbidden Gardens, has the third highest in the nation.
People visit Forbidden Gardens from all over the world, particularly from China. We were told the Chinese government makes travel within China so difficult that it's easier to fly to America and see a miniature replica than it is to stay home and see the real thing.
The attraction, built for an estimated $20 million, covers 40 acres and 2,000 years of Chinese history. It is a curious, impressive, motionless place on the Texas flatlands, with its tranquil courtyard, shaded arcades, koi fish pond, the smell of incense in the thick air and the sounds of Chinese zither plucking from hidden speakers.
Behind the courtyard are 40,000 square feet of tiny model palaces and people: scale models of the Forbidden City of Beijing, The Temple of Heaven, The Calming of the Heart Lodge, and the canal city of Suzhou.
Off to the side is a big pit filled with thousands of little pink men, and behind it is a small hill. These are one-third scale reproductions of Emperor Qin's terra-cotta army -- all 6,000 of them -- and his tomb, Mount Li. Qin Shihauangdi, for those of us less well-versed in Chinese history than Mr. Poon, was the first emperor of China. The terra-cotta warriors were buried with him over 2,000 years ago and unearthed near Xi'an in 1974.
The army is a breathtaking sight (best photographed in the afternoon), receding off into the distance in seemingly endless variation -- though our guide notes there are only about ten basic molds. A large Emperor Qin statue commands from the base of a distant knoll.
Forbidden Gardens takes pride in its attention to detail and in its use of original materials and methods. Those attributes, however, turned into unanticipated liabilities in Katy, Texas. "I don't think the original plan accounted for the Texas sun," we were told by our tour guide. The Forbidden City is at least shaded under a giant open-air roof, but The Temple of Heaven and The Calming of the Heart Lodge, which are not, are in bad shape.
Buildings that have weathered beyond repair are tossed into a pile of busted houses near the dumpster, outside of public view, where they are salvaged for parts.
The models are populated with thousands of hand-painted figurines portraying all aspects of public life and ceremony in old China. The careful detail is hard to fully appreciate 15 or 20 feet out on the walkways; the wear and tear is from leadfooted dolts ignoring the "do not touch" signs, clomping up into the tiny courtyards, bruising structures and breaking handcrafted doll furniture.
One replica that visitors won't see here, and that Forbidden Gardens certainly could use, is a Great Wall -- to keep out the teenage vandals from adjacent townhouse communities who have snuck in at night and smashed several of the pint-sized terra-cotta soldiers. Forbidden Gardens doesn't have any replacements. "They were cast from clay from the original site to make them more authentic," our tour guide told us. "After our order had been cast, the molds were destroyed."
This is not the only time that Mr. Poon's dogged insistence on authenticity has come back to bite him. He specified that the miniature temples and palaces be built of traditional woods -- which bleach and buckle in the Texas sun and humidity.
He wanted the Forbidden City oriented north-south -- just like the original -- which meant that the big roof is useless in shielding it from the storms that blow in from the Gulf of Mexico.
He wanted only Chinese craftsmen to build the miniatures, but China balked at providing work permits so they could come to America, fearing that they would defect (and perhaps giving Splendid China a competitive advantage?). That delayed the opening of Forbidden Gardens by six months. With the place in need of an overhaul, American woodworkers will have to repair it -- difficult because the plans are in Chinese!
Today, the renovation effort is moving ahead on all fronts. It will cost, we were told, an estimated $4-5 million and years of patient effort to get Forbidden Gardens back into tiptop shape. But Mr. Poon is a patient man, his pockets are evidently deep, and he is committed to making his miniature kingdom flourish despite the climate.
The owners of Florida's Splendid China, facing their own hard times, offered to sell Mr. Poon their attraction, but he declined.
He already had a China of his own.
January 2011: News reports indicate Forbidden Gardens may close within a month, a victim of highway expansion the Texas Department of Transportation has planned and is funded.