From Nebraska's Carhenge to Georgia's Jimmy Carter Peanut Statue, America's roads boast strange monuments. No roadside attraction however, is more odd than the Texas Forbidden Gardens, a one-third-sized replica of China's Forbidden City. And after this week it'll be pulverized.
A vanity project to top all vanity projects, the Forbidden Gardens is a massive complex of buildings and statues dedicated to enlightening visitors about China's history. There are 6,000 one-third replicas of Emperor Qin's Terracotta Army. A gigantic scale version of the forbidden city itself under a permanent metal pavilion, complete with a tiny army of staff and guards. There's a theater, a weapons room, an architecture hall, and various other small exhibits.
The whole project was dreamed up by a businessman from Hong Kong named Ira Poon, whose kids were in school in the United States and, apparently, not learning enough about Chinese culture. He was worried that other Chinese-American kids were missing out, so he erected this monument in Houston — a city with a large Asian population.
He picked an old abandoned rice field in the tall grass of the Katy Prairie he thought reminded him of home. Located about 45 minutes drive from Downtown, it was in the heart of nowheresville in 1996. Artisans were flown in from China to to paint the models by hand. The total project cost $14 million and landed the Gardens a high position on Time's Top 50 American Roadside Attractions list.
Crossing a bridge into the Forbidden Gardens now, it's hard to see exactly where all that money was spent. Just 15 years of scorching Houston summers and ceaseless humidity have sacked the place, easily clearing the 1/20th scale Great Wall. Even worse, bratty kids did what invading Mongolian armies could rarely do and damaged the many fiberglass sculptures.
Some are missing heads, others have peeled down to their original colors. The driver of a horse-drawn cart's lost his reigns, so it looks like he's giving a perpetual thumbs up. The wooden weapons the soldiers used to hold are gone. A small army of guides and volunteers couldn't glue them together fast enough. But there's a worse enemy: progress.
When the place was built it was at the end of the ambitiously named Grand Parkway, which connected to absolutely nowhere. A housing boom and a still stable Houston economy conspired against the location and now the Grand Parkway's about to travel right through the hill where a full-sized statue of Emperor Qin looks over his crumbling dynasty.
As I walk around during it's last open weekend, I'm nostalgic for a place I'd never really cared about before. Maybe its enormous scale or overwhelming quirkiness calling out to me.
Curiously, no one working the place appears to be Chinese. The staff looks like they're on leave from the Renaissance Festival. One young woman with a large protruding lip ring, who describes herself as a "former tour guide," tells me they hope another museum will pick up the exhibits. She doesn't seem hopeful, and describes the deal made between the museum's owner and the local government to have them bulldoze the place at the end of the month.
Not surprisingly, a few days later they announce there's no magical bidder stepping up to save the exhibits. Though some exhibits will be stored, most of the place will be sold off. Just $250 for a full-sized terracotta statue, $100 for a one-third scale terracotta warrior and $20 for a fiberglass version. Cash only.
I'm extremely bummed by this news. Maybe it's because of the bulldozers waiting around the corner to crush the place so poorly planned suburban construction can replace the majesty of a shabby miniature city with A Dollar Star, Quiznos, and Dress Barn. I buy a small ceramic miniature of a woman for the road, thinking it'll be a nice souvenir I, for once, don't have qualms about being made in China.
If you're in the area, this weekend will be the last time to see it and I say it's worth the trip. When there's a Payless Shoes over the spot you'll be able to say you knew it when it was the Hall of Literary Enlightenment.
Photos copyright Matt and C.N. Hardigree