Nearly every morning at sunrise,
of delivery trucks and the early Chinatown bustle, Ronnie Lee hops on
his five-speed bike and slowly pedals toward his oasis of calm.
At the Hua Mei Bird Garden,
Lee removes two small square bamboo birdcages from the front basket of
his lime-green Schwinn. After stretching open the flaps of the white
cotton cloth that covers his two yellow finches, the retired restaurant
worker hangs one cage on a wrought-iron post. The other he hangs on a
"The birds like to come here to sing," said Lee, 63,
Kong. "When they hear the other birds sing, they join in."
By 9 a.m., the tiny green sanctuary, tucked among
and basketball courts at the north end of Sara Delano Roosevelt Park,
is a cacophony of trilling songbirds.
Howard Ko, 55, brings his golden-brown Hua Mei - or
eyebrow," for the distinctive white rim around its eyes - by way of a
livery car from his apartment in East Harlem.
The semi-retired construction worker sets the larger,
oval-shaped bamboo cage down on a stone slab in the center of the
"I don't feel any life pressure when I'm here," said Ko,
Kong. "I just like to listen to the birds, drink tea and talk to my
On weekdays, a dozen or so Chinese men congregate by the
outside the garden's fence to admire one another's flitting songbirds
On Saturdays and Sunday mornings, however, more than 50
dot the garden. Some Hua Mei owners make the weekend journey from as
far away as Albany.
The melodious tunes - shrill to some - drown out the
the buzzing park.
"This is a hobby for old guys," said Ko. "It's part of
Watching Hua Mei, finches and other caged songbirds has
in the vibrant morning park culture in Hong Kong and mainland China for
more than 2,000 years.
Hua Mei, a fighting thrush that hails from the forests
China, was known to be a favorite of a Chinese emperor, Ko said.
Despite its popularity, the Hua
Bird Garden hasn't always been a favored destination.
Taking back the land
In 1995, Anna Magenta and her husband, Federico Savino,
the few elderly men who gathered at the dilapidated patch of land in
"It was a garbage heap," said Magenta, an artist who in
founded the Forsythe Garden Conservancy.
"There was no maintenance, and nobody was using the park
except drug dealers," she said.
After raising $2,000, the couple replaced the aging tile
slabs. With help from the local community, they planted an array of
Asiatic shrubs and lilies.
Savino, a photographer, built the dozen wrought-iron
posts from tubing donated by a local plumbing company.
Wild berry plants, including kiwi, attract wild sparrow,
crows, starlings and blue jays.
Retired garment worker Kin Tam, 63, said the happiness
singing birds is infectious. His unnamed Hua Mei keeps keeps him
company at his Astoria, Queens, apartment.
"He's happy when he sings," Tam said. "When he's happy,
Originally published on August 16, 2003