The idea for the Changsha Friendship Garden, the first phase of which was completed in 2019, was included in the 2010 Phalen-Keller Regional Park Master Plan and approved in 2011, but no action was taken until years later, when a $50,000 grant sparked funding to begin the planning process.
A Changsha-St. Paul Sister City relationship began in 1988 under the leadership of then-Mayor George Latimer, and the Garden project was initiated by the Minnesota China Friendship Garden Society,
Changsha, China is one of the ancestral homelands of the Hmong, who built a thriving culture hundreds of years ago. Gradually driven out by various Chinese dynasties, the people moved southward, eventually settling in the mountains of Laos and Thailand. As Hmong began to emigrate toward the end of the Vietnam War, many settled in St. Paul.
Chinese immigrants came to Minnesota beginning in the late 1800s. Many opened businesses such as restaurants and hotels; others worked in the mines on the Iron Range or on the railroads. Since the first Chinese students enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1914, others have made St. Paul their home and worked in a wide variety of professions.
An exchange between the cities as a result of the garden planning included statues of some of the “Peanuts” characters (the cartoon written by St. Paulite Charles Schultz.) One of the artists, Kao Lee Thao, who is fascinated by traditional Hmong textiles, embroidery, and weaving designed a sculpture of Lucy, one of the Peanuts principal characters, dressed in traditional Hmong clothing.
The garden was designed by Chinese architects Jennifer Junfang Fan and Jon Youhua Wen in collaboration with Senior City Landscape Architect Alice Messer and the City of St. Paul Department of Parks and Recreation. Community input in the design included artists and leaders from the Chinese and Hmong communities with the assistance of noted urban planner Weiming Lu. The Payne-Phalen Community Council provided consistent support for the project.
The garden includes features from both Hmong and Chinese cultures. This 1.2-acre site includes plantings of willow and maple trees, shrubs, and winding stone paths, along with various pieces of public artwork. A traditional Chinese entrance gate is sited at the west end, and a park bridge over the channel leads visitors into the garden itself.
A double-roofed pavilion is a replica of China’s 18th century Aiwan Pavilion. Nine art stones have been placed around the garden; they comprise three types of rock with inscriptions, including one made of Dakota stone with an inscription that acknowledges this area as part of the Dakota homeland. Chinese calligraphy by Weiming Lu (1930-2022), whose urban planning concepts included the revitalization of Lowertown, embellishes one of the art stones. Behind the pavilion is a wall with traditional Hmong symbols in bas relief.
Construction of Phase II, the Hmong Plaza, began in 2023 and a Phase III is planned for future expansions to the Garden. These will include a Moon Bridge and Moon Gate, a moon-viewing area, a Chinese chess table, and additional plantings in front of the pavilion.