An inside look at the marvels of the private Dragon Garden

An inside look at the marvels of the private Dragon Garden

We take a tour of the spectacular Dragon Garden near Sham Tseng, a 20-year labor of love from the late Hong Kong business tycoon and philanthropist Lee Iu-cheung
Even in a city of improbable geography and astounding scenery, Dragon Garden comes as a surprise. Perched on a hill overlooking the Rambler Channel, just west of Sham Tseng, it is a testament to Hong Kong’s cultural syncretism and the whimsy of its creator, the late businessman and philanthropist, Lee Iu-cheung. 

If it weren’t for the efforts of a few of Lee’s descendants, though, Dragon Garden might have been lost forever. Four years ago, some members of the Lee family decided to sell the garden to Sun Hung Kai Properties, which planned to knock it down and use the space to build an apartment tower. When Lee’s granddaughter Cynthia found out about the plans, she rallied to the garden’s defence, raising public support through a blitz of campaigning and media coverage. In the end, her uncle, Lee Shui, bought out the rest of the family’s share for HK$100 million. 

Now the garden sits waiting to be restored and opened to the public. Cynthia dreams of turning it into a space for leisure, education and research. Over the past few months, she has invited artists and academics to weigh in on the garden’s future. But nothing can happen unless the government agrees to help finance the HK$30 million renovation that would be necessary to get the plan going.

For the time being, the garden is closed to the public, except for monthly open days and private tours. The public is seriously missing out -- Dragon Garden is one of the most interesting places in Hong Kong, a beautiful green spot that also embodies the city’s eclectic culture and history. Late last month, Lee invited us inside for a rare visit.

Dragon Garden Hong Kong
Dragon Garden Hong Kong

Dr. Lee Iu-cheung was an entrepreneur who made his fortune in a wide range of businesses, from construction to cinema, but he spent much of his time and energy on philanthropy, sitting on the boards of Hong Kong’s major hospitals and charities. When he bought a barren hillside from the government in 1949, his first act was to build a big swimming pool, which he opened up to Hong Kong’s schoolkids -- nearly a decade before the city’s first public pool was built in Victoria Park.

The rest of the garden was built over the course of 20 years. In the 1950s, he hired celebrated mainland architect Chu Pin to design several buildings, including a family ancestral hall. In the 1960s, he built a house for his wife as a gift for their 50th wedding anniversary. Lee paid almost obsessive attention to the design of the gardens, making sure they matched feng shui principles and filling them with artwork inspired by Buddhist, Taoist and Christian beliefs.

“My father worked almost every weekend for 20 years to design this garden,” says his son, Lee Shiu, who now owns the property. “He would come in Friday night and Saturday and Sunday mornings to direct workers on what to do. He completed it in 1968 but he would still come every weekend like he did before.”

Dragon Garden Hong Kong

Halfway up the hill from the main gate, visitors are greeted by a dragon sculpture rising from a pond. The dragon is made with recycled bottles -- just one of many environmentally-friendly gestures that put Lee ahead of its time. Recycled rainwater supplies the streams, ponds and fountains, seawater was pumped into the pool and salvaged construction materials were used in the garden’s buildings.

Lee is buried at the top of the hill, in a mausoleum flanked by the ancestral hall and a pavilion containing a stone commemorating Lee’s life. “When we visit, we always give a little bow to Dr. Lee,” says Levan, the bubbly public relations assistant that Cynthia hired earlier this year.

Dragon Garden Hong Kong
Dragon Garden Hong Kong
Dragon Garden Hong Kong

The ancestral hall has been emptied of most of its contents, except for a portrait of Lee and his wife, Chan Yuet-king. The stained glass windows on either end of the hall are a perfect example of the way that Dragon Garden uses Western techniques to depict Chinese themes.

The garden’s design had a profound effect on Cynthia, who visited it often when she was growing up. “It made such a subconscious impression on me, the arts and crafts and design of what was there,” she says. In university, where she took East Asian Studies and later did a master’s degree in creative media, “I thought I came up with this very innovative concept of mixing East and West, like making stained glass and using traditional Chinese techniques to paint it. It was only in the past few years that I was in the garden and realized that’s where I got the idea.”



The granite stones used to build the foundation of the ancestral hall were taken from the rubble of demolished buildings in Central -- “heritage built with heritage,” jokes Cynthia.

Dragon Garden Hong Kong
Dragon Garden Hong Kong

Next to the stone dedicated to Lee -- which was removed when the family wanted to sell the garden and only recently re-installed -- gardener Lau Suk assembles mosquito-repellent coils in preparation for some guests who will visit later that day. A retired factory worker, he is one of four people who have been maintaining the garden since it was rescued from redevelopment. “The garden is fun to work on -- it’s like a work of art,” he says.

Dragon Garden Hong Kong

Nearby, Levan sits checking emails on her phone. As the garden gets more attention in the media, more people keep asking to see it, and Levan gets about four requests to visit it every week. With only her and Cynthia to coordinate the garden’s activities, though, visits can be a challenge. But she doesn’t mind. “I used to work for TVB as an entertainment reporter and I got to meet all of the celebrities. This is much more fulfilling,” she says.

Dragon Garden Hong Kong

The garden was virtually abandoned for most of the 1990s and 2000s, leaving parts of it in rough shape. Ringo Suen was hired just under a year ago to fix it up and work as a caretaker. He’ll move onto the property full-time next year. “I like being part of the Lee family,” he says. “I do my job with all of my heart and all of my time goes to this garden. It gives me such a nice feeling.”

Ringo and Levan show us some of the garden’s highlights. Dr. Lee planted more than 50 Buddhist pines, prized for their fung shui value. They’re now worth HK$1 million each.

Dragon Garden Hong Kong

This spot was Dr. Lee’s favourite, Levan tells us. It sits next to a babbling creek and a chunk of stone from the Great Wall of China.

Dragon Garden Hong Kong

Nearby is a mosaic featuring the Virgin Mary. It takes many visitors by surprise. “The kids gave grandfather a Christmas card and he liked it, so he asked them to make a mural of it,” says Cynthia. “He was a universal man, kind of like a Leonardo da Vinci. There’s that mix of religions, philosophies and beliefs, each one teaching different truths, or maybe the same truth but in different ways.”

Dragon Garden Hong Kong

In one part of the garden, Dr. Lee used old ginger beer bottles to make curbs for pathways.

Dragon Garden Hong Kong
Dragon Garden Hong Kong

We come across a small cave built into a hillside. Buddhist figurines are inside.

Dragon Garden Hong Kong

As we head up a hill, there is a loud rustling in the bushes. “I saw a big snake here a few days ago,” says Ringo, stretching out his arms. “But don’t worry. It won’t bite.”

Dragon Garden Hong Kong
Dragon Garden Hong Kong

From the top of the hill, you can see the development that has encroached on Dragon Garden over the past 15 years. In 1998, Castle Peak Road was widened, and the government lopped off the fish pond at the foot of the garden, building a huge concrete wall to separate it from the road. It spoils the garden’s feng shui and, perhaps more importantly, blocks the sea view from its lower half.

Dragon Garden Hong Kong

Back down the hill is the garden’s swimming pool. When it wasn’t being used by the public, it was a popular spot for parties and attracted a who’s who of postwar Hong Kong, including several British governors. It also featured prominently in the 1974 James Bond movie "The Man With the Golden Gun", where the garden stands in for the estate of a corrupt Thai-Chinese businessman. In one scene, Bond, played by Roger Moore, sneaks into the garden and encounters -- naturally enough -- a naked and very pretty young woman swimming in the pool.

Cynthia’s memories of the pool are more innocent. In the 1960s, she says, “we were living in Yau Yat Chuen and on weekends we’d take the car and visit my dad’s factory in Tsuen Wan. Our next stop would be the garden.” All of the Lee family’s kids would play in the pool; after they left, Dr. Lee and his wife would spend the night there.

These days, the empty pool is one of the garden’s most popular features. Photographers have used it as a set for photoshoots and, recently, a class of Hong Kong University architecture students installed artworks that evoked its watery past. There has been talk of using it as a venue for film screenings -- the first, naturally enough, starring 007.

Dragon Garden Hong Kong

Just up from the pool is the house that Dr. Lee built for his anniversary. Inside, its paint is peeling and there is water damage, but it is otherwise intact, its decor a window into another era.

Dragon Garden Hong Kong
Dragon Garden Hong Kong
Dragon Garden Hong Kong

Towards the end of the afternoon, Lee Shui arrives with his wife to escort a group on a tour around the garden.



The fight to save the garden pitted him against his brothers and nephews in a very public way. His initial offer to buy the garden was initially rebuffed, even though it matched the amount that Sun Hung Kai had offered, and the family members that wanted to sell the property went so far as to issue a statement declaring the garden historically and architecturally insignificant. Eventually, Lee prevailed, saving Dragon Garden from becoming an apartment tower.

When we ask why Lee was willing to give so much to save the garden, he says simply, “I wanted the public to come and visit this place -- that’s what my father wanted.”

Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
Read more about Christopher DeWolf