Pagoda Odyssey 1915: From Shanghai to San Francisco | Asian Civilisations Museum

Pagoda Odyssey 1915: From Shanghai to San Francisco @ Asian Civilisations Museum
Pagoda Odyssey 1915: From Shanghai to San Francisco @ Asian Civilisations Museum

The year-long Pagoda Odyssey 1915: From Shanghai to San Francisco special exhibition at Asian Civilisations Museum showcases over 80 meticulously handcrafted Asian pagoda miniatures.

I didn’t know about this Asian Civilisations Museum special exhibition till a friend posted pictures of it in our Facebook Group. Once I found out, I made plans to visit as soon as I could, with DSLR and my newest lens and all.

You see, I LOVE PAGODAS; I have always been fascinated by them and I have a desktop miniature of one right beside me as I write this post. Thanks to certain depictions in Chinese mythology and pop culture, these uniquely Asian structures have always represented magic and might to me, and in my mind, count among the most exotic Chinese weapons.

I mean, surely you’ve heard if you’ve ever watched any Chinese fantasy movies or drama series. Pagodas can imprison anything from rebellious sons to serpentine spirits, to demons, to even other magical artifacts. What’s more, a well-magicked one can conveniently shrink to backpack-friendly sizes …

Geek jokes aside, the Pagoda Odyssey 1915 exhibition is well worth anyone’s time. Handcrafted by young Republic of China artists for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, the 84-piece collection is based on real historic structures, including long-lost ones, and is a fascinating showcase of China’s architectural heritage from across the dynasties. Some of the models are so detailed that you wouldn’t find it hard to imagine they are (magically) shrunk versions of the actual structures.

In other words, please do visit this ACM special exhibition when you have the time. The miniatures are exquisite masterpieces and tickets cost just SGD 12 for Singaporeans and PRs. (SGD 25 for tourists and foreign residents*)

Opening hours are from 10 am to 7 pm, with extended hours to 9 pm on Fridays.

* The SGD 25 ticket includes admission to the Asian Civilisations Museum; you’ll need this as the exhibition is on the second floor after the permanent galleries. Singaporeans and PRs enter the museum for free.

Asian Civilisations Museum Tickets.


Pagoda Odyssey 1915: From Shanghai to San Francisco Highlights

To provide some background about the exhibition, all 84 models were made by young artists from the Tushanwan Orphanage Workshop in Shanghai for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

Carved from teakwood and crafted with a scale of 1:50, the collection took centre stage in the Chinese section of the Palace of Education. A showcase that charmed millions as well as offered exotic glimpses into China’s history and architectural heritage.

Tushanwan Orphanage itself has a colourful history. You wouldn’t be able to guess from looking at the name. This is not a Chinese establishment. Instead, it was set up by Jesuits in Shanghai’s Xujiahui District in 1864. The Orphanage subsequently provided vocational training that, according to Pagoda Odyssey 1915, “played a pivotal role in driving China’s modernization.”

A set of portraits depicting four Jesuits in Chinese clothing is displayed at Pagoda Odyssey 1915. One of the four is none other than Matteo Ricci.

This is also the first time the models have been united since 1915. Probably, the first-ever such special exhibition in Singapore too.

ACM Pagoda Odyssey 1915 Exhibition
The Tushanwan collection doesn’t just feature beautiful pagodas. It includes models of weathered and dilapidated ones too. According to the exhibition, this might be a statement on resilience by the Tushanwan artists.
Dragon Flower Pagoda, Shanghai
This is a replica of Shanghai’s Dragon Flower Pagoda (龙华塔). It offers modern generations a glimpse of how the pagoda looked like before it was restored.
Tushanwan Orphanage Figurines
One of the most notable displays of this special ACM exhibition is not a pagoda model but this set of 104 Chinese figurines. These figurines were tourist souvenirs. (This set was given to Admiral Jules le Bigot) The details are astonishing.
Asian Civilisations Museum Special Exhibition
Going through the exhibition made me realised that architectural styles for pagodas in China changed tremendously over the centuries.
Famous Chinese Towers Replicas
I also learned why some Chinese pagodas are circular while others are square. Turns out, it’s an era thing. For example, Tang Dynasty pagodas tend to have square layouts.
Chinese Pagoda Miniatures Exhibition Singapore
It’s truly an architectural feast for the eyes. I bet visitors to the San Francisco exposition were fascinated.

I ought to highlight this. Not all of the models are historically accurate. As objects for an “artistic” showcase, some models included creative adornments. A few have no counterparts in real-life, too, and could have been made to present certain architectural or historical details.

Yunnan Landmarks
Thunder Peak Pagoda Replica
I was on the lookout for this and felt shivers down my spine when I finally found it. This is the replica of the crumbling Thunder Peak Pagoda, or Leifeng Ta (雷峰塔), before it collapsed in 1925. In Chinese folktales, Madam White Snake was imprisoned within Leifeng Ta by the exorcist monk Fa Hai.

IMO, Madam White Snake is probably the most famous Chinese folktale after Journey to the West. In recent years, there were several animated re-imaginations of the folktale.

Porcelain Tower of Nanking (Original) Model
This one is for Civilization fans, of which I’m one. In Civ V, the Pagoda of Repaying Kindness (大报恩寺琉璃塔), or “Porcelain Tower of Nanking” as it’s better known, is a World Wonder that you must build if you’re going for a scientific victory. The tower appeared in Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties too.
Asian Civilisations Museum Pagoda Exhibition
The great thing about Pagoda Odyssey 1915 is that you can still enjoy a glimpse of the models even if not visiting the special exhibition; some models such as the famous Pagoda of Six Harmonies (Liuhe Ta | 六和塔) are displayed outside the special exhibition hall. There’s also a children’s workshop area.
Asian Civilisations Museum Exhibits
While at the Asian Civilisations Museum, don’t forget to visit the permanent galleries. ACM is one of Singapore’s best museums!

Pagodas in Chinese Mythology and Pop Culture

Please allow me to share my “passion.”

While they don’t feature all the time, pagodas have very notable appearances in Chinese mythology and pop culture. The following four are the most notable “appearances.”

  1. As highlighted above, the Thunder Peak Pagoda at Hangzhou was said to be the magical weapon used by Fa Hai to imprison Madam White Snake. In all versions of the folktale, Madam White ultimately escaped, too, after the pagoda was destroyed by her son or her companion Xiao Qing. The actual Thunder Peak Pagoda collapsed in 1925 after centuries of disrepair. (Or perhaps Madam White cultivated enough magic by then to free herself, as I would prefer to believe!)
  2. A miniature pagoda is the signature armament of Bishamon, the Buddhist Heavenly King and Guardian of the North. The Investiture of the Gods/Journey to the West character Li Jing is based on Bishamon and so his magical weapon is a size-changing golden pagoda capable of imprisoning (and burning) most beings. Li was given the pagoda to help him restrain his rebellious son, Nezha.
  3. One of the most thrilling confrontations in Louis Cha’s The Book and the Sword is the showdown at Liuhe Ta. Like a video game, each level of the pagoda was defended by a chieftain of the Anti-Manchu Red Flower Society, and the higher you go, the stronger the guardian/boss is. When I visited Liuhe Pagoda in 1997, I rushed up the pagoda while imagining myself as a dastard Manchu assassin.
  4. The Haotian Tower/Pagoda is one of the Ten Great Artifacts of Softstar’s Xuan Yuan Sword game series. It could imprison or seal anything. It’s not one of the original Ten Great Artifacts either. The Haotian Pagoda was only listed as one after it was used to seal the Tai-Yi Wheel of Destiny.

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Pagoda Odyssey 1915: From Shanghai to San Francisco @ ACM
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Pagoda Odyssey 1915: From Shanghai to San Francisco @ ACM
Pagoda Odyssey 1915: From Shanghai to San Francisco at the Asian Civilisations Museum is ongoing till Jun 1, 2025.

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