Can a flower connect to a culture? For landscape designer Lily Kwong, the answer is easy. “Plants are rich carriers of cultural information,” she explained. As an Asian American, Kwong relates her Chinese heritage to her work. She did that as the guest designer for the 20th Orchid Show at the New York Botanical Garden. For AAPI Heritage Month, Kwong told News-O-Matic (NOM) how her family history inspired her work — including that show, Natural Heritage.
NOM: You were born in California. How did you learn about your heritage?
Kwong: I was lucky that I grew up around my grandparents. My grandparents are both from Shanghai. So, I’m second generation with Chinese roots. We spent a lot of time in Chinatown. And so much culture is passed down through storytelling, food, and traditions. There was always a massive Chinese New Year celebration. There were family reunions. And many kinds of were passed down to my parents and then to me. That includes four scrolls — beautiful paintings from Shanghai. They helped me explore my own family history.
NOM: Tell us more about those scrolls.
Kwong: They take up an entire wall. I remember staring at them when I was a kid. I would get lost in these paintings. Growing up in a different country than your parents or grandparents, sometimes it feels like where your family comes from is this mysterious place. So, it felt special to build these mountain forms that I grew up staring at.
NOM: How can kids learn about their own heritage?
Kwong: There’s inspiration all around us. I’m sure there are things in your homes — whether it’s actual objects or stories your parents have told. They get stuck in your memory. Thirty years later, I’m building a piece inspired by something that mesmerized me as a kid.
NOM: How can plants connect to a culture?
Kwong: In many cultures, plants are associated with different energies, myths, or stories. For example, orchids were mentioned by Confucius. He was a Chinese philosopher from thousands of years ago. Orchids are found in the deep mountain valleys of China. Confucius saw them as blossoming even though nobody was there to witness them.
NOM: Can plants be symbols of Asian cultures?
Kwong: Orchids became the symbol of the gentleman or the scholar. And we should all be like that — delicate, yet noble. So, there are associations between plants and the values of a culture. You see that in Chinese gardens with cherry blossoms or bamboo or orchids. These are all meant to symbolize what the culture values.
NOM: What plants did you include in your orchid show?
Kwong: All the plants were endemic to Asia. That means they are found naturally across the Asian continent. There were 5,500 to 6,500 orchids in the show. Some come from Vietnam or Taiwan or other parts of Southeast Asia.
NOM: Are orchids used in traditional Chinese medicine?
Kwong: There used to be a belief that plants gave you clues to their healing properties based on how they grew. Dendrobiums were always found on the sides of rocks or on rock faces. The stems are boiled in a tea. And it was thought that these orchids, since they’re growing on the sides of rocks, would give you strength — because rocks are strong and tough. It turns out, that is exactly what they’re used for. Dendrobiums are used to increase your overall strength. They’re still used today, thousands of years later.
NOM: Did you grow up with traditional Chinese medicine?
Kwong: Oh, definitely. My dad was always growing this pot that stunk up the whole house, this mucky brown goop that he would drink to help his lungs. When we got sick, he would give us ginseng or ginger. Many plants have healing properties. That has been a part of traditional Chinese medicine for many . Much of that wisdom is still relevant today.
NOM: You were the first Asian woman to be a guest designer at the New York Botanical Garden. What did that mean to you?
Kwong: It inspired me to dig into my heritage and share the most beautiful parts of my culture proudly and clearly. The past few years have been challenging for a lot of people in the Asian community. So, I wanted to celebrate the beautiful traditions in Asian culture. It felt important to do something that was tied to my heritage. I was someone who looked and sounded very, very different. I wanted to celebrate that. And I hope kids embrace the differences that make you unique and beautiful.
NOM: Do you have advice for AAPI Heritage Month?
Kwong: If you are lucky enough to have elders around you — grandparents or aunts or uncles or parents — ask them questions. I am lucky to still have my 92-year-old grandmother. But my grandfather is no longer with me. And now I wish I’d asked him so much more about his childhood — about growing up in Shanghai, about his parents, about his education, about what his house smelled like. All those little details made him who he was.
Updated May 1, 2023, 5:02 P.M. (ET)
By Russell Kahn (Russ)