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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, June 17, 2001

Hawai'i Gardens
Hawai'i welcomes master bonsai artist

By Heidi Bornhorst

Zhao "Brook" Qingquan of the Chinese Penjing Artist Association shares techniques in a penjing demonstration at Club 100. Walter Liew, who owns a number of miniature trees himself, carefully watches.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Hawai'i bonsai enthusiasts and all of us who appreciate bonsai were honored recently when one of the master bonsai artists of the world, Zhao "Brook" Qingquan of China, visited here.

Bonsai is a popular hobby, as well as a profession in Hawai'i. It is often associated with Japan; however, bonsai originated thousands of years ago, like many great things, in China. Origins date back to the Han and Qin dynasties (221 B.C. — A.D. 220). In China, bonsai is called tree penjing; some styles are similar and some are very different from what we are used to here in the Islands.

Qingquan, vice president of the Chinese Penjing Artist Association, shared some of his techniques in demonstrations while he was here. His explained that members of his family have been penjing artists for several generations, and that he lives in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, an area famous for penjing. Yangzhou is an old cultural and economic center situated at the junction of the Yangtze river and the Grand Canal.

He has written several books, including "Penjing, World of Wonderment." Friends urged him to write about his styles and combinations, and a beautiful, richly illustrated and well-written book was the result.

There are two main penjing styles: tree and landscape penjing, the master said. And there is a modern form, as well: water and land penjing.

In traditional Chinese writings, creating tree penjing was described poetically as a process of "reducing a dragon to one inch." Landscape penjing "can shrink thousands of miles into one river bend."

As I visited with him, I began to think: Where do you go to see bonsai or share this gardening style with visitors? The exhibit at Pearl City Tavern is no more, and there is no permanent bonsai display of any significance in a public place now. There are many bonsai associations and they have periodic shows, demonstrations and sales; that's your best bet.

We are planning for a permanent home and showcase for a bonsai display at Foster Botanical Gardens, where I work, along with garden upgrades, renovations and master planning efforts that have been under way for the last few years. Wouldn't it be great to be able to see a well-maintained bonsai display, learn and take classes from the many bonsai experts who live in Hawai'i, and have a showcase to display the Island form of this great plant tradition?

Jane Yamashiroya, president of the Hawai'i Bonsai Association, alerted me to master Qingquan's visit and asked if he could tour the Foster Botanical Gardens. I enthusiastically replied "yes!"

Seeing the gardens through the eyes of a penjing master was a whole new experience. He shot almost a whole roll of film on our historic sacred bo tree (Ficus religiosa), grown from a piece of the original tree under which Buddha sat and gained enlightenment.

The plantings of the bo or bodhi tree next to a Chinese banyan struck Qingquan as a giant living bonsai with a very attractive and symbolic flow.

He loved the upright white multi trunks of the Chinese banyan in conjunction with the flowing trunk and graceful branches of the bo tree. However, my staff and I are always concerned from an arboriculture viewpoint that the Chinese banyan will overwhelm the bo tree. I really wished that I spoke Mandarin at that point because he waxed eloquent about our historic trees.

Sam Yamada, vice president of the Hawai'i Bonsai Association, and Anne and Walter Liew of Dragon Garden Nurseries in Waimanalo were also on the tour. The Liews were translators for master Qingquan. Although his English was excellent, he is more fluent in Mandarin.

Walter Liew shared with me that Qingquan is one of two leading penjing masters in China. Unlike some, he doesn't work for the government. For the past 15 years, he has been traveling around the world, sharing and teaching the art of penjing.

The demonstration he gave here at Club 100 was well attended. He used local plant material: the Fukien tea in combination with marble slate and rocks from Shangdong, which is the Liews' native province.

This miniature garden is now on display at the Hawai'i Bonsai Cultural Center at the Liews' nursery, 41-909 Mahailua St., Waimanalo. A five-acre site is devoted to the display of bonsai, and the Liews generously welcome the public to come and visit. Another five-acre site is stocked with young starter bonsai that can be purchased at a reasonable price.

Heidi Bornhorst is director of Honolulu's five botanical gardens; her column appears here each Sunday.