Visit Britain: How did your journey to Britain begin? How was it compared to your initial impression of the UK?
I didn’t think I was coming to the UK, but I think it’s my destiny. I was an exchange student to the UK by chance (I didn’t realise it was an exchange programme when I was admitted to the university in the Netherlands) and have lived here in the UK for almost 16 years since.
Although I had never planned to live in the UK, I was always fascinated by it's history, art and culture. Before I came here, my impression of the UK was probably the same as many others – beautiful countryside, aristocracy, football and gentlemen. But I was also interested in the Industrial Revolution and why Britain didn't want to join the Shengeng and Euro schemes.
When I arrived here, I had a cultural shock – I couldn’t understand the British English – didn’t understand why they say cheers when they thank someone, or what are the wellies and brollies when it starts to rain. More importantly, it was challenging to get the British humour. Now, I’m loving it!
Visit Britain: What was it like when the first time your saw Britain?
Time flies, but I clearly remember the first time I landed in the UK. It was a four girls adventure in a cold February morning. We were exchange students from the Netherlands to Canterbury Christ Church University. We decided to take the 9-hours’ coach since it was the cheapest and most straightforward option from Amsterdam to Canterbury. Not even reached 6 a.m., we were dropped off. It was dark and foggy; the air was cold and crisp; the street and car park silence made the departing coach especially loud. There we were – four girls with all of our suitcases, in an empty car park in a foreign land – Hello Britain!
It felt all gloom and doom, but when the sun broke through the darkness and we were able to get our first cups of hot coffee in our hands, we were charmed by this historic city. The famous Canterbury Cathedral was on our left, our university on the right, the ancient stone city wall alongside the canal in the middle. The only missing were the medieval pilgrims, knights and carriages – I thought to myself – then we found them in a mural in a subway, a mural depicting The Canterbury Tales!
Not sure if the readers can feel how we felt - we didn't land at Heathrow, but in the middle of a quintessential English city. Through dark to light, as if we were sitting in the theatre watching Britain unveiling itself in front of our eyes.
Visit Britain: Speaking of beautiful connections between China and Britain, what are yours?
My connection between China and Britain is art and peonies. As the national flower of China, the peony represents prosperity, and, in the UK, it’s a symbol of chic romance.
On a spring day years ago, I was mesmerised by a bunch of graceful but uncommon pink flowers at a florist – they were peonies. I had to have them! Not until I looked up the word “peony”, I realised they were the type we call our national flower in China. I decided to paint them in acrylic, oil and the traditional Chinese gongbi style. Ever since my first bunch of peonies, I noticed them more and more in British gardens, big and small, formal and casual, manor houses and cottages. I sometimes peek into people’s front gardens to take photos of their peonies. I kept painting and created The Peony Girl brand after I met Her Majesty and presented my silk fan peony paintings to Her Majesty and Princess Michael of Kent.
I always love flowers and gardens, from my late grandpa’s communal garden in China to my little cottage garden in the UK; from my hometown-proud Suzhou gardens to majestic RHS and National Trust gardens. But it was the peonies that made me notice things more, pay more attention to different flowers, little things in life, and things that make me happy.
That’s why I want to spread this joy – the joy of running around in the grass barefoot, the joy of being carefree, the joy of celebrating natural beauty but also recognising wilting realities in life – this is the essence of The Peony Girl.
Visit Britain: Where do you live in the UK/where have you been to the UK where you are most impressed?
I live in Leicestershire, which is in the East Midland of England. Leicester has not been on the global map until, for the footie fans, Leicester City miraculously won the Premier League in 2016.
Leicestershire is next to the Peak District. I am blessed to have majestic scenery on my doorstep. There are rolling hills, national forests, quintessentially English towns and villages, Tudor houses and my favourite place – Chatsworth House and Garden, home to the 16th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.
It’s also one of the most filmed places for Pride and Prejudice, featured film, and TV series. Rumour has it - Jane Austin could have based her Mr Darcy on the 12th Duke of Devonshire, as he was the most eligible bachelor at the time. I especially like the Chatsworth Garden because I can find tranquillity there as if nothing in the world I need to worry about. That also inspires me to transfer that inner tranquillity into my art.
And it’s not just in the Peak District. I enjoy Kew Gardens, RHS Wisley Gardens and many National Trust places. It’s the conservation of nature and heritage that Britain has been championing and the art of crafting the sanctuaries that allow us to get closer to nature in a very British way.
Also the art in Britain. There are so many galleries and museums across Britain. When I travel to central London, even if I have 10 minutes only, I would go to the National Gallery to admire Waterlily Pond by Monet, my favourite painting. I also look forward to every season’s late-night party at the Royal Academy of Art (RA Late) to dress up and live in the art.
Visit Britain: Everyone said that there is a lot of fun in the British summer. When it comes to British summer, what memories do you have?
British Summer is short and unpredictable. That’s the fun of it – Not like in China, where it’s boiling for a few months, you never know when it’s going to be hot and sunny in Britain. Once there’s the sun, there’s the fun! Summer dress’s out, BBQs out, and laundry’s out.
As well as enjoying walking and hiking, I love my garden in the summer. From spring to early autumn, waves of different flowers bloom – daffodils, lily of the valley, camelia, tulips, cherry blossoms, irises, Japanese Acer, peonies, roses, clematis, foxgloves, lupins, wisteria, lilies, poppies… Without the pandemic, I host BBQs every year in my garden – just another chance to be outdoor and be in nature, even if it means we need a brolly.