Reporter Journal / William Hennelly

Phoenix Chinese center backers prepared to fight for history

By William Hennelly (China Daily USA) Updated: 2017-09-29 12:33

To a Chinese-American group fighting to preserve a cultural center in Phoenix, it's the history that matters most.

"The Chinese people appreciate and understand history like no other civilization on earth," Thomas Simon, spokesman for the Chinese United Association of Phoenix, told China Daily. "History is extremely important to the Chinese community. To us here in America, we have 250 years of history. The Chinese talk about 4,000 to 5,000 years of history."

The association is stressing the architectural merit of the Chinese Cultural Center as it opposes any changes made to the building by its new owner.

COFCO, the Chinese state-owned company, built the center in 1997, envisioning it as a tourist attraction that would connect Arizona and China.

The company sold the property in November 2016 to a New York investment firm, which sold it in June for $10.5 million to 668 North LLC, a real estate unit of True North Cos, a private-equity firm.

Chinese community members have offered to buy the building back for $13 million, but a True North spokesman told China Daily on Sept 20 that the building is not for sale.

True North is converting the building into new headquarters for 350 employees. It has offered to move some elements of the center to a park in downtown Phoenix, such as the paifang, or welcome gate, and maintain the Chinese garden at the current location.

In a Sept 20 press release, Simon emphasized that "relocation is destruction".

"The True North Company has incorrectly stated that we could easily move the Chinese Cultural Center to another location. This is a false narrative," Simon said.

"Each and every Chinese element used in the building process of the property, including the iconic garden, was designed by the same architect that designed the Ming Garden located at the Metropolitan Museum of New York."

Madam Ye, the center's Chinese architect, wrote in a recent letter to the Phoenix City Council: "The main building structure and the garden in the foreground complement and echo each other Removing any one of these elements would result in losing its distinct and noble characteristics."

She called the center "a truly unique cultural art piece that showcases cultural and classic Chinese architecture and cultural elements in its entirety."

The technique used to construct the pavilions and galleries with each piece interconnected is a UN-designated World Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

The center was built by masters of Chinese traditional architecture and craftsmanship as classified by the UN World Heritage Center (UNESCO).

Parts were prefabricated in China by hand, transported to Phoenix and installed by more than 100 noted Fragrant Hill Group Craft masters. (Fragrant Hills Park is an imperial garden built in 1186 in Beijing.)

The masters' ancestors built the Imperial Palace in Beijing, The Forbidden City.

Madam Ye said older materials used in the garden are now exhausted, "given the demand for them domestically".

"The stone, steles, statues and monuments in the Garden of Harmony are made with stones from Suzhou's Gold Mountain quarry, and today that mountain is protected, and so taking any stone from there is forbidden."

A restaurant in the center, which owns 5 percent of the property, on Wednesday was granted a temporary restraining order through Nov 3 to prevent any work being done on the garden and roof tiles. And the owner of a former supermarket in the center plans to sue True North and its publicist for stating that he filed for bankruptcy and owed back rent, both of which are false, said Simon.

"The center represents history to the Chinese Americans here, and they are not going to give up," Simon said. "This is a battle between big business and history and culture," he said.

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