Let us pause for a moment and mourn the passing of the Forbidden Gardens roadside attraction in Katy, Texas. Forbidden Gardens, you were far too strange and far too poorly located in Texas to survive in this world.
The history of Forbidden Gardens is the kind of story I like to keep in mind in the unlikely event that I ever become obscenely wealthy. Why buy another yacht or summer home when it would be far more fun to spend the GDP of a small island country on a tourist trap which totally confuses everyone? In 1996 a reclusive Chinese-American real estate mogul from Seattle, Ira Poon, was concerned that his children were not learning enough about their Chinese culture, according to the Houston Press. Poon bought an 85-acre rice field off of Texas Highway 99 outside of Houston, which has one of the highest Asian populations in the country. There, Poon built a $20 million scale model of Beijing’s Forbidden City, complete with a replica of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s throne room and 6,000 small replicas of the terracotta soldiers buried with the Qin Dynasty ruler for the purpose of protecting him in the afterlife. Poon’s army was ordered from China and assembled at the park by Chinese artists.
It’s interesting, here, to imagine the kind of impact the original army had on people versus that of Poon’s army. Qin Shi Huang was a man who commanded so much wealth and power that he was able to commission a massive supernatural army to help him crush his foes even after he was dead. Seeing the originals as they were buried with the emperor had to have been both an awesome and terrifying experience, an eternal testament to someone who wielded authority like a god.
Poon’s army, however, mostly inspired confusion. Before the attraction opened in the mid-90s a reporter with the Houston Press interviewed people at a diner in Katy, asking what they thought about the project. The owner of the business asked the reporter if the project was part of a religion or a cult. “All Things Considered” on NPR aired a fluff story about the Forbidden Gardens in 2004. A worker at the park told the reporter that they frequently got phone calls from people who thought “Forbidden Gardens” was the name of a strip club.
Now, stereotyping people is wrong, even if these anecdotes fit the assumptions many people have about Texans. In Texas’ defense I was looking for the Forbidden Gardens on YouTube and found an unrelated pole dancing video on the very first page.
Despite the confusion, the attraction remained open and was a favorite destination for elementary school field trips and retirees. But in 2009 the Houston Press reported that the park was falling into disrepair. The terracotta soldiers got the worst of it. The humidity and the rice field’s (obvious) tendency to flood severely damaged some of the warriors, which could not be replaced because the molds were destroyed. Children would steal the wooden swords carried by the soldiers. The park would often close due to flooding, at which point its only visitors were wild animals and water moccasins. The park was also a favorite nesting spot for pigeons, who left their own form of art criticism all over the sculptures.
Forbidden Gardens closed in 2011 to make way for another ambitious (albeit boring) installation, the Grand Parkway ring road Segment E. The park, according to the Houston real estate blog Swamplot, responded by liquidating the terracotta soldiers on Craigslist. For the low, low price of $100 a soldier, people could start amassing their own armies to defend them in the netherworld. The ads were removed as the museum’s part-time workforce was quickly overwhelmed by people offering to buy them. There’s some speculation on the Swamplot blog that Poon decided instead to sell the warriors as a set, but one of the final messages on the museum’s web site states that the soldiers were for sale to buyers who would be allowed in the park in groups of 40.
Forbidden Gardens was a slow-burning disaster, an ambitious but confused installation which miraculously survived for 15 years before being swallowed by a metropolitan area that never understood or appreciated it. It lives on as a fun piece of kitsch history, a meeting of one man’s desire to teach people about his culture and the American tradition of bizarre highway tourist traps.
Bill Rodgers is a Contributing Editor at CFile.
Above image: A terracotta Emperor Qin Shi Huang commands terracotta soldiers at the Forbidden Gardens in Katy, Texas. Everything is bigger in Texas, even the tourist traps.
Although it’s not the best quality, this camcorder video from Ron Schira walks us through Texas’ Forbidden Gardens and includes tour guides explaining the works on display.