In the N.C. Chinese Lantern Festival, Sichuan Artisans Light Up the Dark in Cary | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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In the N.C. Chinese Lantern Festival, Sichuan Artisans Light Up the Dark in Cary 

click to enlarge A giant dragon roars at the N.C. Chinese Lantern Festival

Photo by Ben McKeown

A giant dragon roars at the N.C. Chinese Lantern Festival

A little more than two months from now, lanterns of all shapes, sizes, and colors will light up the streets of China's cities. At the end of the Chinese New Year, children will carry paper lanterns as they marvel at the handmade creations that have taken over their towns. While the lantern festival has been celebrated in China for centuries, its major introduction to the Triangle came last year when the N.C. Chinese Lantern Festival first came to Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary.

This year, illuminated lions, bright yellow Alice in Wonderland-like flowers, and intricate swans light up the night and leave visitors awestruck at the festival, which returned to Koka Booth last month and runs through January 15. Tianyu Arts & Culture, Inc., the company responsible for the festival, is based in Zigong, a city in the Sichuan province where the lantern festival is said to have originated. There, artisans gather yearly to craft detailed lanterns that lure tourists from all over the country. According to Alison Newell, the marketing manager of the company, lantern making is a highly specialized skill that often runs in families, resulting in generations of makers. There's even a team of brothers who worked on the lanterns in Cary this year, says Jessie Li, the project manager for the company, adding that one of the brothers works as a welder, creating the frames for the lanterns, while the other first came as a cook.

Li, who grew up in China, says that the Cary festival is as authentic as the ones people would see in her home country. All of the lanterns are handmade, a process that begins with designing the frames. Then welders transform the designs into reality with steel and iron pipes, and electricians wire the insides with light bulbs that bring the lanterns to life. Fabric artists (generally women, Li notes) glue brightly colored silk brought from China on the frames, giving them their texture. Finally, painters add detailed touches, infusing some realism into the otherwise fairy-tale-like displays.

For this year's festival, which features more than thirty large lanterns, eighteen Chinese artisans came to work onsite for twenty days. Surveying the ample festival grounds, knowing the intricate process required to construct these pieces, it seems impossible that so much could be made by hand in a mere three weeks. But Li explains that many of the smaller pieces were constructed in China and then shipped to North Carolina. Only the larger lanterns, like the crowd-pleasing two-hundred-foot dragon and the festive entryway, were made on site. Li says these pieces were some of the most difficult to construct because of their size and weight. The dragon, for instance, stands twenty-one feet tall, weighs in at a massive 18,000 pounds, and took a fifteen-person crew and a crane to construct.

Cary's festival may not have the traditional sticky dumpling balls or lion dances one usually sees in China, but performances by traditional Chinese dancers and jugglers add a layer of authenticity to an already spectacular display.

"I think it's important for everyone to experience different cultures," says Newell. "And this is an authentic event."

And, in a time when xenophobia and talk of banning people of other cultures issues from the lips of the president-elect, events like this are all the more important, providing a lantern of understanding in what, lately, has felt like a dark night.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Because the Night"


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