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Forbidden Gardens

You would think Texas has enough eccentric millionaires that it wouldn't have to import them, but sometimes a little foreign competition is just what's needed to keep roadside weirdness at its best.

In 1996, a real-estate magnate from Hong Kong raised the bar a notch when he opened one of the most wonderfully odd attractions to hit the state. Ira P.H. Poon felt a desire to educate the public on Chinese history and culture, spent millions of his own money to open Forbidden Gardens, a sort of historical theme park in Katy, just west of Houston.

The centerpiece of the 40-acre park is an enormous one-twentieth-scale model of Beijing's Forbidden City, a restricted-access imperial complex built in the 15th century. Ensuring as much accuracy as possible, Poon had the miniature palaces built using traditional materials and construction techniques.

Composed of approximately 200 amazingly detailed buildings and populated by between 10,000 and 20,000 tiny, hand-painted royalty and their servants, the exhibit comprises the world's most stupefying train set––without the train, of course, because they didn't have them back then. Don't be stupid.

Perhaps even more breathtaking is the expanse of diminutive soldiers representing the vast terra-cotta army of Emperor Qin (pronounced "Chin"). The original, discovered in 1974, was constructed to guard the tomb of the first emperor of unified China. It consists of some 6,000 life-size statues buried in formation, now mostly excavated and on display as a tourist attraction. The site is recreated here at Forbidden Gardens in one-third scale.

Poon had originally planned to build the attraction in Seattle where he lives, but decided the terribly rainy weather would be detrimental to his outdoor museum and instead located it in Texas.

Unfortunately, he didn't take into account the blazing sun and humid Gulf air, which has taken its own toll on the models. Consequently, he's had to spend time and money on almost continuous maintenance, which has delayed the miniature Great Wall and other additions that he's planned since the park's opening.

What's most surprising about Forbidden Gardens, though, is the fact that hardly anyone knows it exists. Advertising for the attraction is almost non-existent. Reasons why are hard to come by, since Poon himself is rather reserved, visiting his creation only once or twice a year and shying away from any kind of publicity.

Perhaps one day, though, Mr. Poon's staff will outpace the weather, enabling him to complete his ambitious masterpiece so he can reveal it to a wider audience. Otherwise, it may just have to be unearthed over time like Qin's clay cavalry.

Weird Texas


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