At first glance, Forbidden Gardens, the odd miniature tribute to the wonders of China located just east of Katy, looks shabby and weathered. Paint peels on the tiny model of the emperor's summer home, pigeon shit covers the Forbidden City, and fiberglass cracks and peels from the statues of horses that guarded the emperor's tomb.
But the story behind the outdoor museum is more interesting than its appearance implies. An hour-long tour with one of the museum's well-versed guides makes the entry price of $10 very worth the drive out of the loop.
Texas Traveler had always been curious about what stood behind the gate and tall bamboo on Franz Road. We finally decided to visit amid the hubbub surrounding the terra cotta soldiers' visit to the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Forbidden Gardens boasts 6,000 1/3-sized models of the soldiers in the same formation in which they were buried.
Model of Emperor Chin's tomb
Poon chose Houston as the location for his museum because the city has one of the largest Asian populations in the country. He built the museum at Franz and Grand Parkway because the lot used to be a rice field, and it reminded him of home, Mendez said.
Poon spared no expense in the building of his museum. The 6,000 terra cotta soldier replicas were hand-made in Xi'an, China, using molds that were later destroyed. All the parts for the sprawling 1/20th scaled model of the Forbidden City and Calming of the Heart, the emperor's summer home, were built in China and then shipped to Houston. Poon even paid for several of the model-makers to fly to Houston to assemble the models by hand, including painting all the details and applying gold leaf to many of the pieces.
Calming of the Heart, the emperor's summer palace
The Forbidden City is under a large metal pavilion, and features the most intricate models, many of which include tiny people in the formation of a ceremonial procession. The pavilion was ostensibly meant to protect the exhibit from the weather, but it gave rise to a new problem, pigeons. Even a large decoy owl can't keep the pigeons from nesting in the rafters and crapping all over one of China's most important cultural icons.
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Even the location, the rice field which reminded Poon of his hometown, gives rise to problems. In rainy weather the entire museum floods, bringing with it wild animals from the neighboring fields and reservoirs, including water moccasins. The floods mean Forbidden Gardens is occasionally closed.
Terra cotta soldiers stand guard
Changes are afoot to make improvements at Forbidden Gardens. The museum is in the process of trying to become a non-profit, which will help secure funding for upkeep. The owner is planning on building an event facility on the property for weddings and other celebrations. And Mendez said she is seeing more visitors than usual for this time of year, in part, she thinks, due to the appearance of the real terra cotta soldiers in Houston.
Admission to Forbidden Gardens is $10, free for kids under 12. Admission is a all-day pass, which includes a guided tour of the facilities and a 15-minute film.