Nicholas Jose

What is a (Chinese) Garden?

This is an edited transcript of Nicholas Jose’s talk that was accompanied by a slideshow presentation given at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art on 21 October 2011 for the forum New Century Garden: Talking About Public Art in Chinatown, produced by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in partnership with City of Sydney. Copyright of this text remains with the author.

Nicholas Jose’s text as PDF

Video documentation of this talk


About the Forum

New Century Garden: Talking About Public Art in Chinatown, produced by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in partnership with City of Sydney, examines the role of public space in Chinatown, using the specific idea of a garden as an initial proposal for a public art project.

The principle aim of the forum is to begin a public discussion on ideas, processes and concerns regarding new approaches to public art, particularly in regards to multidisciplinary ways of working that may allow for artists, designers, architects, planners and communities to come together in innovative and mutually rewarding contexts.

An opportunity exists for the development of a new public artwork on Thomas Street in Chinatown, which runs between Hay Street (at the southern end of Sussex Street) and past Quay Street to the rear of the ABC Building in Ultimo. The area of Thomas Street that has been identified will in future be a pedestrian thoroughfare.

In thinking about this site Public Art Curator for City of Sydney’s Chinatown Public Art Plan, Aaron Seeto, is drawn to the idea of installing a garden or to work with artists working with vegetation. There are reminiscences around ideas of more traditional sculpture gardens, but transformed for a 21st century context. In creating a garden space, this area for public art could house a number of permanent smaller works and become a public meeting area as well as becoming a space for temporary projects and presentations. The garden itself would be a public artwork in its own right, created through a process of collaboration and research amongst a team of artists, designers, architects and other professionals.

More than just a garden, the site on Thomas Street will operate as a junction of a range of disciplines and positions, including art and design, social and cultural history, feng shui principles and the community’s needs from this public space. In this sense, Thomas Street will operate as a curated space, using the idea of a garden to structure a range of positions around history, tradition, and the social and cultural aspirations for the future. Furthermore, in the past, public art in the area has been formulated within a representational mode that used a recognisable palette of Chinese elements – such as lanterns or red lighting – to locate the Chinatown area.  However, Contemporary Asian cultures around the world are constantly evolving this outwardly representational mode and future projects should embrace this dynamic to broaden the cultural, conceptual and technological parameters of thinking about what public art can be in Sydney’s Chinatown.



Guest speakers

John Choi is Founding Partner of Choi Ropiha Fighera architects with an international profile for innovative projects that bring together architecture, planning, branding, public space and tourism.


Felicity Fenner is Chief Curator at the National Institute for Experimental Arts and Senior Lecturer in the School of Art History and Education at the College of Fine Arts, University of NSW.

Nicholas Jose is a novelist, essayist, playwright, former Cultural Counsellor to the Australian Embassy in Beijing, and is currently a Professor at the Writing and Society Research Group at the University of Western Sydney.

Dr Xing Ruan is an author and Professor of Architecture at the University of New South Wales.

Aaron Seeto is Director of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art and Public Art Curator for City of Sydney’s Chinatown Public Art Plan.

Bridget Smyth is Design Director at the City of Sydney and leads the City’s urban design and public art team.

Jason Wing is a Sydney-based artist of Aboriginal and Chinese heritage who has been commissioned for a public art project in Chinatown’s Kimber Lane.