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 Post subject: Profile: Peter Chan
PostPosted: Tue Aug 22, 2006 6:45 am 

Joined: Wed Feb 20, 2008 7:35 pm
Posts: 163
Location: The Art of Bonsai Project
Profile: Peter Chan

Peter Chan has been awarded a record 21 Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medals, a feat no other bonsai specialist has ever achieved. He has also received many awards including a prestigious Honours award from the Association of British Bonsai Artists. He is the author of seven best selling books which are sold worldwide and has appeared on television many times to talk about Bonsai. His first book, which is recognised as having sparked many a Bonsai enthusiast's interest, is still in print in eight languages.

Japanese garden construction is part of his expertise; you can see examples on the nurseryand also at the RHS gardens at Wisley where he built and donated the garden and Bonsai collection in 1998. Many of his beautiful gardens have featured in lifestyle magazines.

Peter's personal blog can be seen at

Peter and Dawn Chan
The following is an on-line interview conducted with Peter Chan:

AoB: What is your recollection of your earliest encounter with bonsai? How did you feel about it? Was that first impression the defining moment in your pursuit of bonsai, or did it take more than that to make you get involved with it?

Peter: I have always been interested in growing plants from a young age, but had never seen bonsai till I came to England. My first encounter with bonsai was when I saw them depicted in Chinese ceramics magazines in 1967 when I was deeply involved with studio pottery. I was so fascinated by these little trees that I was determined to experiment with a few nursery plants. That was the begining of a long love affair with bonsai.

My first home was an apartment with a large balcony, and everything we grew had to be in containers. As I was making ceramic pots already, I copied some chinese bonsai pot designs and make them for my balcony. I planted some shrubs like Berberis, Forsythia and Wisteria in them and those were my first attempts at bonsai.

When we moved to a house with a garden in 1969, I began to experiment more with shrubs I found in the garden. I remember a tall standard cotoneaster in the front garden which my mower had damaged. The trunk looked interesting with the deep scar, so I cut it down to a short stump, dug it up and when it sprouted new shoots, it had all the makings of nice bonsai. This is the tree on page 162 of my first book 'The Art of growing and keeping miniature trees'.

From 1967 to 1974 my main interests were ceramics and gardening. I had a typical English garden with large herbaceous borders and roses. Bonsai was not my main interest and I did not have more than ten trees which faintly resembled bonsai.

Trident Maple (Acer buergerianum)

AoB: How did you go about learning? Do you consider any particular master as your teacher, or did you study on you own?

Peter: Most of my learning was through experimentation with ordinary garden plants.

I am completely self taught and in fact my first book is a distillation of my experiments in making bonsai. There is no substitute to learning by trying different things and by making mistakes. There were hardly any bonsai books in English at the time and all I did was to look at pictures of bonsai and copy the shapes. In the late '60s there were no masters to speak of.

AoB: What do you think the art of bonsai will be like over the next few decades?

Peter: Bonsai is changing fast. The Europeans are catching up fast and in the next few decades their artistic skills will surpass the Japanese. Many of the South East Asian countries will also surpass the Japanese.
Bonsai will be popular all over the world. The Chinese will dominate the pot and tools market and the market for indoor tropical trees.

AoB: If you had a chance to do it again, how would you go about getting an extensive bonsai education?

Peter: I came to bonsai late in life. I was 27 when I first took an interest in bonsai - that was in 1967. I was a professional Electrical Engineer and Bonsai was only a hobby which I turned into a business quite by accident. I would not have liked to be any other way. I value my experience in other fields which have enriched my life no end. A true bonsai professional today would need to take up an apprenticeship in Japan to get anywhere and I would never have found the time to do that when I was getting really involved in bonsai.

AoB: Your book "Bonsai, The Art of Growing and Keeping Miniature Trees" was well received by the bonsai community, were you happy with the final outcome and what, if you could, would you change now?

Peter: That was my first book - written 22 years ago. I have written seven books in all, The latest one was for the Readers Digest called 'Bonsai Secrets'.

That first book was written in two weekends from talks I had been giving to bonsai clubs in the UK. As I was a speech writer at that time ( I used to write speeches for British Govt ministers in the Thatcher era), writing was not a problem.

Many people criticize that book because it does not show many major classic trees although I did have good bonsai at the time. I deliberately chose to show ordinary bonsai that I had made so that it would encourage the reader to experiment with trees themselves. If you look at my fourth and subsequent books, you will find some exquisite trees of mine. My first book was printed in seven or eight languages and is still in print and still selling well.
Many a bonsai enthusiasts interest has been sparked off from reading that book.
(According to a recent reader survey in the UK, the book has received a very favorable review.)

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)

AoB: Was getting a book on bonsai published difficult and what advice would you give to those hoping to be published?

Peter: As a new author, it is always difficult because publishers will pay you a pittance. Everything is loaded against you. Remember too that it is usually the publisher who commissions the book. You do not write a book and go to a publisher to get it printed. It doesn't work that way.

AoB: When styling a raw material, what do you consider as your greatest challenge?

Peter: Seeing the shape that lies dormant in the tree.

AoB: Do you think that bonsai in the future will break away from the limitations of its tradition? Or you may believe that this tradition
captures the essence of bonsai, and perpetuating it is vital to its

Peter: Tradition will always be important. I cannot see bonsai in a completely different shape or style and still be called bonsai. Yes - there will be variations in design of trees and container, but they will still be recognisable as bonsai.

AoB: It was recently noted in a bonsai travelogue that in the Far-Eastern countries bonsai is practiced by the older generations, while in Europe it caught on to the younger crowd. What may be the reason for this?

Peter: Everything is relevant. There are still some young people interested in bonsai out in the Far East, but not as many as before. But dont be mislead.

In Europe as our generation gets older we are also seeing fewer young people coming into the bonsai scene. Youngsters are more into computer games and mobile phones than engaging in hobbies like model making and bonsai. You only have to see how the decline in membership of bonsai clubs has occurred in the last ten years to realise that all is not well with bonsai.

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)

AoB: Are you maintaining a large personal collection at the present time? What do you recommend as the ideally sized collection for the advanced practitioner?

Peter: I still have some twenty or thirty specimens that I started with in the early '70s. I have sold a few but the bulk of them are still with me.

I think twenty or so trees is the ideal size for a personal collection. They should also be of manageable size.

AoB: Do you like to push the boundaries of using new species of trees for bonsai? Or you'd rather stick to those that are well proved.

Peter: I am always trying new species - especially native trees.

AoB: Do you think that knowing the art of displaying bonsai is essential to the art?

Peter: Very much so. Bonsai is afterall a visual art. Unless they are displayed properly they will not be attractive.

AoB: What advice could you give us on setting up a successful display?

Peter: Do not compromise on quality. Less is more - have fewer trees of quality rather than have lots of rubbish.

AoB: Would you encourage people to experiment with new methods of displaying their trees?

Peter: Why not.

AoB: If you could only teach one thing to those interested in bonsai, what would it be?

Peter: Patience.

AoB: Is there any exciting project that you are working on at the moment?

Peter: I am more into Japanese gardening these days. The artistic skills are just as demanding.

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)

AoB: What is your stand on collecting very old trees from nature? Do you encourage it, or would rather see a sustainable field-growing industry?

Peter: I dont like people raping the countryside - ie taking trees without permission.

OK if the trees are due for clearance due to road building or other projects, but if they are growing naturally, then they should be left for everyone to enjoy.

AoB: Can you mention a few of your favorite artists, and the reason why you like them?

Peter: I can think of only Kimura because he saw bonsai in a new way.

Last edited by Paul Stokes on Tue Jan 29, 2008 11:43 pm, edited 2 times in total.

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Fri Aug 25, 2006 2:00 pm 

Joined: Sat Jan 29, 2005 2:13 am
Posts: 1190
Location: Los Angeles, California
To me, Peter Chan's books were among the first ones to inspire and get me hooked on bonsai forever. I will always remember him as one of my first mentors.
It's nice to finally read some of his personal views in this interview.

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sat Aug 26, 2006 3:39 pm 

Joined: Sun Mar 13, 2005 4:49 pm
Posts: 32
Location: INDIA
Mr. Peter Chan is originally from city of Calcutta, India and had his electrical engineering degree from I.I.T. Karagpur , West Bengal ,India. He keeps comming to his motherland often and is liked very much here as well as all over the world.
I have one of his books and attended his demo at Calcutta Jyotirmoye club at Calcutta at Lala Sridhar's place.
His insight into a rawmaterial for bonsai design potential is awesome. His charming smile and witty talks can turn around an ordinary plant into an artistic bonsai. His rock plantings demos are feast for eyes.
I think his bonsai are generally youthful as he is personally despite his 60+age.
May he continue for years for the sake of bonsai brotherhood worldwide.

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Fri Sep 01, 2006 6:37 am 

Joined: Tue Aug 08, 2006 12:45 pm
Posts: 99
Location: Dhaka, Bangladesh
Peter Chan's book ' The Complete book of BONSAI' was also among the first books to inspire me too (like Attila) to pursue this art form. The book, though did not cover much on the 'how-to' aspect but the lovely pictures were really inspirational in making up my mind to take up bonsai.
Peter Chan is also a revered bonsai person in Bangladesh, and I would really hope that during his next visit to Calcutta, he includes in his itinerary, a visit to Dhaka as well, to meet the bonsai lovers of Bangladesh.

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