Undiscovered New York: Staten Island’s Snug Harbor

Welcome to Undiscovered New York. This week we’re returning to one of New York City’s least-visited tourist spots: Staten Island. Despite its reputation as the “Forgotten Borough,” Staten Island is home to some of New York’s most delicious food, unique sites and friendly residents. Not least of these sites is Snug Harbor.

Originally founded as a residence for aging sailors, the sprawling 83 acre grounds of Snug Harbor are host to a majestic collection of 19th Century Greek Revival buildings, interesting art museums and serene botanical gardens. What’s perhaps most amazing about this fascinating site is just how easy (and cheap) it is to get here from Lower Manhattan. A scenic (free) ride on the Staten Island Ferry plus a quick 10 minute bus trip and you’re there.

Want to get lost in a hedge maze and an authentic Chinese garden? How about some panoramic views of New York Harbor and the city’s skyscrapers? Click below to go inside Staten Island’s Snug Harbor.
Snug Harbor Grounds

The centerpiece of Snug Harbor is the site’s beautiful 19th Century architecture. A complex of five buildings comprise the area’s main focal point, with the huge Randall Memorial Chapel as the anchor. Each building presents a front of soaring columns and a spacious portico in a style similar to that of the ancient Greek temples. On all sides the buildings are surrounded by other unique landmarks: an original wrought-iron fence, an 1890’s zinc water fountain and some beautifully manicured grounds.

The careful placement of each building along with the landscaping have led many visitors to describe the site as reminiscent of a college quad. The whole scene, taken together, represents a surprising oasis of calm in the typical hustle and bustle of New York City.

Staten Island Botanical Garden
Also on the site of the Snug Harbor complex are the Staten Island Botanical Gardens, one of the more interesting landmarks in the area. Kids will be easily entertained by the Connie Gretz Secret Garden, one of only a handful of European style hedge mazes in the United States, and one that is modeled on the well known children’s book, The Secret Garden. The maze winds its way to a miniature castle, complete with its own drawbridge and moat.

The gardens are also home to The New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden, a unique Chinese-style space modeled on the famous green spaces of the Chinese city of Suzhou. The beautifully landscaped courtyard with pond, terraced rocks and authentic Chinese pavilions was constructed by 40 artisans brought in from Suzhou to ensure accuracy and authenticity.

Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art
With all the beautifully preserved architecture and authentic gardens, one could be forgiven for thinking Snug Harbor is purely a historical sight. But in fact, Snug Harbor is also home to one of New York’s many galleries of contemporary art. The Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, a Smithsonian-affiliated museum that is home to around 15,000 square feet of gallery space. Depending on when you pop in, you’ll be treated to exhbitions by a diverse range of artists, ranging from both the international to the local.

Suzhou Bookworm now open for business

Back in July I took a daytrip to Suzhou, China (about 40 minutes by train outside of Shanghai) and visited the future site of The Bookworm’s latest English-language library cafe location. Owner Peter Goff took me on a tour of the construction site, which you can see here (scroll down to the photos at the bottom of the post.)

I was happy to learn this week that the transformation is complete and the new Suzhou Bookworm is now open for business. The photos really wowed me. After walking through demolition rubble and dust, it was cool to see the finished project looking so fab — the two-story bookstore cafe appears almost to be floating along one of the canals that Suzhou is famous for.

A few days ago, Peter checked in with an update on how things are going: “We had our first booktalk last night..historical fiction writer Adam Williams doing his stuff. It was great. About 30 people turned up to listen and buy books so not a bad start.” They had another event today, award-winning Canadian children’s writer Marie-Louise Gay.

This opening is another great score for booklovers in China. Be sure to visit a Bookworm location (the others are in Beijing and Chengdu) when your itinerary brings you through any of these cities.

Chinese Buffet – Part 15: Suzhou Museum & Gardens

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

Located less than an hour from Shanghai by train is Suzhou, a water town that’s been called the “Venice of the East.” One of China’s most ancient cities, with a history that dates back 2,500 years, Suzhou is known for its canals and gardens. I took a day trip (50 RMB round trip via train) to see for myself.

I had hoped to find one of the sightseeing boats I’d read about. Supposedly they depart from the canal near the train station and run through the city’s network of waterways. But there was massive construction taking place in the canal right across from the station — it was dry and full of work crews. Instead, I set out on foot down the main street that cuts through the city – Renmin Lu. Eventually I snuck down some side streets and walked along the canals, sensing a slight resemblance to Mediterranean life here and there along the waterway:

I suspect in cooler weather it could be great fun to spend several hours exploring the alleyways and bridges of Suzhou, but since my time was limited, I wandered with a fairly tight agenda. I wanted to be sure to fit in visits to some of Suzhou’s famous World Heritage recognized gardens. I took a shortcut across the main pedestrian shopping street (Quanqian Jie) and headed south, in search of The Master-of-Nets Garden. Tucked away down an alley full of trinket vendors, this quaint garden was nice and quiet when I arrived. Several guidebooks say it draws the most tourists because it is so charming:

The only group roaming around the grounds was a sketch class. I sat and observed some students as they drew. The crickets sang softly and a slight breeze cooled me down. It was exactly what I expected an ancient garden to provide — shade mixed with silence. I would have liked to linger longer, but I was in desperate need of water…and had an appointment.

I headed off to meet with Peter Goff and see the site for The Bookworm’s newest location. Superbly located along a canal just off Shiquan Jie (a popular bar and restaurant strip), the latest branch of this English-language lending library cafe is set to open in September. We took a short tour of the prime canal-side location where the building renovation is underway:

After our meeting I asked Peter to point me in the direction of the Blue Wave Pavilion. I liked the sound of this garden and knew it was nearby. He directed me towards Canglangting Jie. The garden is also known as the Canglang Pavilion. Spacious and peppered with rock formations, it was also quite empty. I think the hot temps were definitely keeping folks away. But the greenery of the garden actually made it a perfect temporary escape from the hot sun:

At this point I knew I still had a few hours to spare and decided I would switch gears from gardens to museums. Renowned for its silk manufacturing, I debated a visit to the city’s silk museum. But I had recently read an article about the new Suzhou Museum and was craving a contemporary art fix. I jumped in a taxi heading north:

Designed by international architectural superstar I. M. Pei, the new Suzhou Museum opened in October 2006. The original museum, established in 1960, was the former residence of Prince Zhong Wang Fu. This older part still exists at the rear of the museum, but the new “face” created by I. M. Pei brings a bold new look to this corner of the city:

The contemporary design takes its inspiration from the traditional courtyard and ancient gardens that Suzhou is famous for. It houses over 30,000 works from Suzhou and the surrounding Wu region. The four permanent collections include sections on Wu calligraphy, painting and relics.

I. M. Pei’s family lived in Suzhou, in an area that neighbors this museum and is part of another of the city’s ancient gardens. Fans of modern architecture or the work of I. M. Pei should not miss this masterpiece:

I sat by this creative wall waterfall and lotus pool, reflecting on the design elements I had encountered during the day:

From ancient gardens to renovated buildings to modern museums, I sensed a continuity to my Suzhou travels — it seems that what’s old is always new again.

Chinese Buffet – Part 9: The Bookworm Grows in China

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

Before I depart on any trip, I always do some research on bookstores in the cities I’ll be visiting. (My own personal Bookstore Tourism planning, of course!) As I researched the bookstore situation in China, I learned about the large state owned operations and at least one English-language chain. But one of the most interesting places I read about was this lime green literary hub, which sits pretty atop a water pumping station in Beijing’s popular Sanlitun neighborhood:

Primarily a cafe, The Bookworm is cushioned by shelves of books and supported by a growing membership and impressive events schedule. It’s a unique community library, cultural center and gathering place for both locals and travelers that opened in Beijing in 2004 and is now expanding throughout China.

I visited The Bookworm on an event night in early July, arriving several hours before the scheduled speaker, so I could enjoy the atmosphere, grab some dinner and chat with Bookworm founder Alexandra Pearson.

The first of the Bookworm’s three spacious rooms has the most social atmosphere, houses the bar, and is one of the cafe’s two smoking rooms. This is where most folks seem to hang out and chat or check email on The Bookworm’s free wifi:

Directly behind the bar area is a cozier room with lounges and a few tables. This is where members can check out books from the lending library, and also purchase select nonfiction titles that The Bookworm keeps in stock. There are cards and jewelry for sale as well:

The third room is the non-smoking room, and home to The Bookworm’s fiction collection. During the two times that I sat and worked on my laptop in this room, I observed a variety of folks browsing the shelves, meeting over coffee or dining with family and friends. The menu serves up typical Western fare with academic names like Plato and Pythagoras. The motto says it all – folks come to The Bookworm to Eat, Drink and Read:

The Bookworm operates to serve the local English-speaking population – expats and Chinese locals too, looking to improve their English language skills. Foreign travelers increasingly seek it out as well — a comfortable haven that may provide a “homesick fix”. It can be a peaceful place to relax in the afternoon, or a chill spot to party in the evening.

In the Bookworm’s back room I met Benjamin Tang, a Taiwanese-American based in Houston, TX, who has been traveling to China since 1990. Ben explained to me that when he visits China, it is usually for several weeks at a time, and what frustrates him sometimes is the lack of being able to obtain information from the “outside world”:

“After traveling in China for a couple of weeks, I somehow feel disconnected from the rest of the world. Going to the Bookworm has always helped me fill that void. The liberation of the mind is a wonderful feeling.”

The series of literary and cultural events that The Bookworm organizes throughout the year is exactly what draws Ben and so many others to visit again and again. As it approached event time, the fiction room transformed into a sea of curious faces, and by the time things began at 7:30 pm, there were about 120 people in attendance. They had all come to hear Dr. Kerry Brown talk about his new book, Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century.

The Bookworm hosts author events like this on a weekly basis, and also runs children’s programs and monthly musical events — the bar area is home to a piano too. Owner Alexandra Pearson originally came to China when her parents moved to work at the British Embassy. She left, then returned to China in the early 1990’s to study at The Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Several years later, she had a business venture for which she purchased a collection of books. When ownership changed hands, Alexandra lost the books, but a few years later was able to buy them back. Those 2,000 books formed the foundation of The Bookworm.

The majority of books that make up The Bookworm’s collection – now 20,000 strong – have come from donations. Because foreign-language books are so expensive to purchase in China, Alexandra envisioned The Bookworm as a place for exchange — of books and literary ideas. The collection, while large, is far from comprehensive (by library standards) — but the real value lies in the community and cultural discussion that the Bookworm environment fosters.

And recently the Bookworm has branched out to offer that same community atmosphere to other Chinese cities. After the Beijing location was up and running successfully, there was talk of taking the concept elsewhere. Alex teamed up with partner Peter Goff to open a second library cafe branch in Chengdu in 2006.

And the momentum continues. While traveling in China, I had a chance to meet Peter and visit the future home of Bookworm #3, positioned along one of the canals of Suzhou, a popular “water town” about 40 minutes by train from Shanghai. In mid-July, the demolition and gutting process was well underway:

A former journalist in Hong Kong, Peter eventually moved to mainland China and was a Beijing Bookworm patron first, before teaming up with his friend Alexandra. He manages the logistics of start-up and expansion outside of Beijing, while she focuses on the book collection and event content for all three locations.

As Peter explained, there is obviously a much smaller expat market outside of Beijing, but he and Alexandra still saw great value in taking The Bookworm brand elsewhere. They see the opportunity to appeal to a larger Chinese market, which means offering a greater portion of events in Chinese at these smaller locations. The English speaking population is just not large enough at the moment, so while all the books on the shelves are in English, certain programs offered in Chengdu and Suzhou will be run in Chinese. The Suzhou branch is scheduled to open sometime in mid to late September 2007:

Beginning this fall, Alexandra Pearson will be booking authors to do mini-tours of all three library locations. The Bookworm branches will also work together on their annual Literary Festival, which will take place in March 2008.

News of a growing Bookworm network is fantastic for English-language readers living in China, but it’s just as great for lit-minded travelers too. Each store has an email newsletter, so sign up if you’ll be traveling to China — it’s an easy way to keep informed about events that may be happening during your trip. Visiting a Bookworm is sure to be an excellent way to connect with locals and other travelers too. And, if you’ve got extra books in your backpack that you’re looking to unload, now you know where to donate them!

A Canadian in Beijing: Suzhou’s Hidden Gardens

I’m tired of being stared at and so I’ve crouched down and I’m writing in here, tucked between two full benches in a room that holds one thousand people, easily. This is one of five waiting rooms at the Suzhou Zhan (train station) where people are waiting for their Labour Day trains to take them away from their lives for a few days. There really aren’t a lot of white faces in this town and mine has received a lot of stares, points, giggles and craning necks.

Today I came to Suzhou on a day trip from Shanghai. It was Jeni’s idea, really, and she even bought me a ticket here and everything. This is the site of some of the world’s oldest traditional gardens and I wanted to see them (or at least one of them) and take some photographs.

Today is Lao Dong Jie, or “Labour Day” as we know it, and it marks the beginning of a week’s holiday for nearly everyone in China. It’s amazing that I was able to get a return ticket back to Shanghai considering the line-ups at the train station this afternoon. The whole process took about an hour and a half. I stook in one line about one hundred feet long next to maybe thirty other identical line-ups just slammed with people. And while they moved fairly quickly, there was pushing and budding and shouting at the ticket windows, which made for some very stern clerks.

I waited patiently and when it came to my turn, I was given a wide berth – a sort of foreigner’s deference. Strange at times and common here in China, but today it was appreciated as it made it easier for me to communicate with the attendant and secure my return fare. I was the only white face that I could see in a room of more people than I could estimate and this photo (above) does not do the scale justice.

Suzhou is known for its beauty and many people retire here. It is a smaller city – only about six million people, or a bit bigger than the size of Toronto! – and it is full of greenery and lovely canals that line walkways and parks.

After the train station, I walked in the direction of the most recommended garden. There was so much construction on this road that I couldn’t find it and everyone I asked was either also visiting or was too shy to respond. I ended up joining the throngs on a small shaded patch of grass by a river to have a snack and to rest my walking legs.

When I started up again, I finally saw a historical landmarks sign that told me that I’d overshot that particular garden. “Mei wenti,” I thought (or, “no problem”), “I’ll just go to a different one!” So, I followed my nose and my eyes and zeroed in on an historic temple that cost too much to tour (but was free to photograph!)

I was sure that the temple would have some gardens to tour but I was wrong. I continued on. I even hopped a rickshaw for a large section of one of the busy streets. There was just something sweet about the rickshaw driver and he caught me with tired feet!

When I hopped out, I was supposed to be really close to the “Joy Gardens,” which were next on my map. I walked along the road and couldn’t see a single garden nor an entrance way or alley towards one. I did, however, pass a music shop.

That’s when it was all over.

A young man was sitting in the entrance way and was playing an erhu. These traditional Chinese instruments have always fascinated me and I even own (a broken) one at home. I walked past the shop and smiled but then a few paces later I remembered that I needed a guitar strap and so I doubled back.

The men in the doorway greeted me with smiles – both the proprietor and the young musician – and motioned for me to tour the store at my leisure. I asked about the guitar strap and promptly purchased it (only 10 kuai!) and then proceeded to ask some various questions about the erhu. Eventually, I imagine that my questions got a bit trying and they asked me if I wanted to try to play it. Of course I did!

They gave me an informal lesson on holding the bow and the instrument on my leg, finding the notes (doh, ray, me, fah, so, lah, tee, doh) and the correct posture. I was concentrating so much on trying to hear the pitch and land the notes correctly that I didn’t realize until I looked up about five minutes later that a small crowd had gathered on the sidewalk to watch this blonde foreigner make horrifying, out-of-tune sounds on the erhu!

The owner subtly motioned for me to move into the store and he sat me down half-way back and away from the onlookers and then plopped a children’s erhu lesson book in front of me. If was equipped with pictures and diagrams. He told me to keep working on it with an impatient “why-have-you-stopped?” gesture and so I did. It only took me about another five minutes to successfully nail the major scale. They applauded. I smiled like the little kids in the pictures and I knew that I had to buy one.

Only 175 kuai later and I had a starter erhu and case filled with extra strings, rosin and the shopkeeper’s well-wishes.

Now they wanted to hear me play the guitar and so I spent another half an hour picking and strumming away at a very cheap guitar that he pulled off of the wall for me to play. They clapped and laughed at my style of playing but kept encouraging me and I was easily baited into playing more. Finally, though, it was time to put the cheap guitar back on the wall in hopes that it would one day stay in tune.

I strung my new erhu over my shoulder and bounded out of the store with music in my step.

I was still looking for that garden, but I again couldn’t find it, even after asking the police who made a grand (and loud) show of miming how to get to the garden to me despite my ability to understand basic directions.

A half-hour later and I was no closer to any traditional garden. I had planned to meet some friends from Canada in Suzhou in the afternoon and I was already late. I caught a taxi and had to accept the fact that I wouldn’t be seeing any gardens this time around. The traditional gardens of Suzhou will have to wait until the next time.

(I’m sure they’re beautiful!)

I’d like to think of this music shop as my hidden garden in Suzhou. It was beautiful and full of tradition!

They’re calling my train now. Time for me to lift my stuff off of this dirty floor and make my way back to Shanghai. I have a “standing only” ticket (i.e. no assigned seat) for the ninety-minute, jam-packed trip back to Shanghai. . . so wish me luck!

Erhu image came from Deborah Koh’s page dedicated to the folk music of China.