On a breezy Wednesday morning, a giant crane carefully lowered 400-pound wings onto a 200-foot-long phoenix — the centerpiece of this year’s Philadelphia Chinese Lantern Festival — between several swaying trees. Two workers stood underneath, balancing on the bird in their socks to avoid damaging the bright blue fabric covering its body. They guided the wings into place and began hammering metal support poles between each. Just one week out from the festival’s official opening, the final touches were unfolding to bring the colorful beast to life.
Now in its fourth year, the Philadelphia Chinese Lantern Festival brings not only the phoenix, but 28 other, all-new displays to Franklin Square, May 1 through June 30. It’s a majestical, pop-up paradise of eye-catching sites — lit by 20,000 LED lights — that takes months upon months of work, hundreds of hands of Chinese artisans, and a 16,000-mile-long boat ride to pull off.
“Almost because of the fact that they’re so bright and animated and polished, it can be easy to miss how much intricate detail goes into them,” says Amy Needle, president and CEO of Historic Philadelphia Inc., of the lanterns. “Each lantern is a work of art in its own, composed entirely of handmade components — it’s amazing to think about.”
It all begins in Zigong, a city in Sichuan, China, also known as the capital of traditional Chinese lantern-making. There, a staff of around 100 — most of whom are welders and fabric-layers, and a few of whom are painters, designers, and electricians — begin to craft the thousands of pieces that create the lanterns. The operation is run by Sichuan Tianyu Cultural Communications Ltd., the parent company to Tianyu Arts & Culture Inc., which produces festivals across the world, including the one in Philadelphia, in cooperation with Historic Philadelphia.
“There’s no school where you can learn this kind of thing, so it’s really a craft that’s passed down from family generation to generation,” says Stephanie Zhou, Tianyu Arts and Culture’s production manager. “It can actually be hard to find a lead designer because their talent is high in demand, and they must practice for years. Most have a degree in art, but that’s just a premise to enter the industry.”
The lead designer, Zhou says, is the most important person to the festival. This individual dictates both the shape and color of each lantern by drafting the initial drawings and telling the fabricators what silks to use once the 2D versions become 3D versions. This individual also spends hours with a brush in hand, painting all of the final details, like the eyes of the panda bears and the scales of the dragons, on his own in the weeks leading up to the festival.
The production schedule kicks off about three months out — which is also when Tianyu Arts & Culture must coordinate visas for the team of 30 Chinese artisans who travel overseas for the final month of on-site work. In the first month, about 70 percent of the lanterns are welded in the Zigong warehouse, and about 50 percent are covered with fabric, fitted with lighting, and painted.
“You can’t really ship a gigantic tail of a phoenix, so there are certain parts that must be constructed at the last-minute on-site,” explains Zhou.
After a month of fabrication, all of the already constructed lanterns are then loaded onto a cargo ship in Shanghai. Traveling along with them are boxes of fabric, buckets of paint, thousand-foot rolls of electric cable, glue, lights, a welding machine, ladders, and every single other piece of material and tool needed to put the entire festival together. The ship heads out on a monthlong journey to New York City, where a semitruck then retrieves the materials, packed inside 20 brimming shipping containers, and takes them to Franklin Square. Here, the crew of artisans, flown in from China little more than 24 hours earlier, is ready to unload them. They spend the next four full days unpacking all of the contents — and then the sprint to finish line begins.
Pretty soon, fragments of fabric and wire begin to dot the grass of the northeast corner of Franklin Square. Stand-alone dragons’ feet, angel wings, lotus flower petals, and other parts to larger displays also scatter the grounds. Four weeks remain to put everything in place and to return the construction zone back to its initial state. By opening day, this same area is set to feature a far less chaotic scene of Adirondack chairs for the festival’s Dragon Beer Garden.
The on-site team — made up of one designer, two electricians, 11 fabric wrappers, and 16 welders — work diligently, often pulling 12-hour days when the weather is nice to get everything prepared in time. Zhou acts as their translator to navigate working with Franklin Square and Historic Philadelphia staff. At night, the team stays nearby in an apartment complex in Chinatown.
Along with the multicolored phoenix, this year’s festival highlights include a walk-through dragon tunnel and an array of interactive installations, like illuminated swings and a fortune-telling wheel. There’s also a display of mythological creatures created from 30,000 small glass bottles filled with colored water — the handiwork of two individuals tasked with dedicating all of their time in the final four weeks to assembling it.
There are plenty of nods to Chinese culture, too, including two panda bears playing mah-jongg alongside two other panda bears eating hot pots — both traditions originating out of the Sichuan Province.
“Americans often confuse Chinese culture with Japanese and South Korean — but these lantern festivals are truly unique to China and are an intangible part of our cultural heritage,” says Zhou. “Bringing them here gives a window into something that’s very special to us.”
In China, the festivals traditionally unfold on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year as a celebration to pray for a good harvest and gain favor of Taiyi, the god of heaven. Dating back 2,000 years ago to the Han Dynasty, the lanterns were originally simple, paper-crafted constructions made only for royalty. Over time, the designs shifted into far more elaborate and embellished sculptures that fill grand festivals in cities and towns across China. To light up the striking spectacle inside Franklin Square, it takes nine times the amount of energy needed to supply an average house.
Tianyu Arts & Culture has a designated performance department dedicated to finding the magical face-changers, contortionists, martial arts specialists, and other entertainers who travel from China to create the onstage show.
“The whole festival is very true to what you’d see in China,” says Zhou, noting that in Sichuan, family members travel from all over to be together, and usually preface the lantern outings with a meal of rice dumplings. “There’s less than 1,000 people in this whole industry, so it’s very specialized. You’re not going to find anything like it anywhere else but in China.”