Behind-the-Scenes at the NC Chinese Lantern Festival
Each December my Facebook feed lights up with photographs of dazzling Chinese lanterns — brilliant red and gold birds and fish, a menagerie of round baby pandas, and delicate cherry blossom trees. Most of all, I see dozens of selfies taken in front of a long, mystical Chinese Dragon swimming just above the waves of Symphony Lake.
That’s how I know the North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival is in town.
The brightly-colored silk glowing against the dark December nights create stark and vivid photos, but still didn’t prepare me for the enchanting and overwhelming experience of actually seeing the lanterns up close.
And as 90,000 Triangle-ites walk past the glowing lanterns each Winter, they have no idea that behind-the-scenes the real show starts before the gates open each night, as a whole community of artisans build a quiet haven of Chinese culture in the hidden tents where the heart of the festival resides.
This team–artisans, chefs, dancers, musicians, and construction crew–travels all the way from China. Quiet and unseen, they scurry back and forth backstage each day, creating the magic and wonder we enjoy each year.
I was fortunate enough to get a tour of this secret world.
Constructing the Lanterns: An Up-Close Look
Since one of the festival favorites is the Chinese Dragon Lantern, I hoped to get a closer look. During the festival, the Chinese Dragon sits just above Symphony Lake, breathtaking in size and color. Over 200 feet long, if the Chinese Dragon came to life, it could easily intimidate two or three school buses. It weighs 18,000 pounds and had to be installed with a crane.
Normally, the Chinese Dragon is unreachable, adding to its air of mystery. Today, though, I was fortunate to stand beside its enormous head — feeling, in fact, much like Danaerys. I may or may not have uttered, “My dragons!!”
As impressive as they are glowing in the night, these lanterns are equally vibrant in daylight. The colorful silk stretched over sculpted wires is bold and skillfully shaped.
The sheer size of these works of art proves the creativity and craftsmanship of the designers. Many of these pieces are so large that a crane helps assemble them. So an artisan must not only consider colors and designs, but also whether or not their concept can be constructed and stay standing through wind, rain, and snow.
In fact, many of the lanterns do get damaged during the two-month festival. Therefore, the artisans must stay in North Carolina for the entirety of the event, to fix any damage and assist in the set-up and break-down of their masterpieces.
China in Cary: Building a Home Away from Home
To keep the North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival bright and lively, an entire community of artisans, performers, construction workers, and chefs must build a life in Cary for two whole months. In fact, for ten months out of the year, artisans travel the world with the festival, taking care of their lanterns from town to town.
“We do miss home,” says Miao Zhang, a translator for the crew. “But we want to show the Chinese culture and beautiful lanterns. We send performers in costumes, so we can share our culture with the world.”
When asked how he likes the food in America, Miao Zhang laughs. “We prefer much spicier food. In our home, Zi Gong, the weather is very wet, so we eat more chili peppers.”
To keep the troupe fed, traveling chefs set up kitchen in a large white tent behind the festival. Inside, I discover a Wok almost the size of a table, which will prepare food for dozens of workers. A woman in a white chef’s coat cuts raw meat from ribs, surrounded by bowls of sesame seeds, zucchini, and white rice. She doesn’t speak English, so I smile and wave.
Beside her, just as Miao Zhang said, there is a huge bucket full of fresh chili peppers.
When the Chinese Lanterns Go Out, the Real Culture Starts
“Each night,” shares Scott Misner, Publicist for Tianyu Arts & Culture, “the 25 Chinese artisans, who arrive in November and stay through January, set up a kitchen at Booth Amphitheatre to cook their traditional Chinese meals.”
After the performances of Chinese Drumming, Plate Spinning, Contortionists, and Face-Changing are over, and the crowds have filtered out, the lanterns are turned off and Koka Booth Amphitheatre is quiet and dark. Having been away from home for weeks, the artisans, workers, and performers come together for a hot, home-cooked meal at the end of the day. They share stories, community, and a little bit of the comforts of home.
It’s time to go rest in their hotel suites after a long day of making magic for North Carolinians.