Larger than life objects filled with color are illuminating Soldier Field’s South Parking lot, as it is currently home to Chicago’s first Dragon Lights Festival, an international touring event that’s giving visitors a taste of the Chinese tradition.
“We do the Chinese Lantern Festival in Spring time and it symbolizes the reunion of family members,” said Grace Zhou, the on-site manager from Tianyu Arts and Culture. “As to the ancient origin of the Chinese Lantern Festival, it comes from the Chinese mythology in which there was a monster called the Nian, who would come out of hiding to attack people. There was a wise man who found out that the monster was really sensitive to loud noises and scared of lights, and that’s why we have the tradition of hanging up the lanterns on the wall, to scare off the monster.”
As time progressed, the displays developed; instead of using bamboo and rice paper, artisans began using materials including steel and fabrics to give it a more modern look. The 60 artisans from Zigong, China worked day and night for a month to construct over 40 handcrafted Chinese lanterns. The displays were made onsite at Soldier Field’s parking lot, as they are built from scratch for each and every festival.
“Zigong, China is in the southwest of China and it is considered the center of all China lights and lanterns,” said Zhou. “There are about 2,000 artisans living in the city and they learn the technicality of the lantern making from their elders, grandmas, grandpas, and their relatives, and you can rarely find artisans who are not from Zigong who know how to make these kind of lanterns for this festival.”
This is the 24th Dragon Lights Festival in the U.S. since 2015 and each festival provides a different theme that the artisans create. Each lantern takes a team of at least five artisans who start off by creating full-size sketches of the lantern. Welders then cut and bend steel rods to create the frames, before electricians fill those frames with LED lights. Then “glue ladies” come in to carefully cover the object with colorful silk.
While the process took lots of time, precision, and skill, the end result was well worth it, as the artisans filled the stadium parking lot with two 200-foot-long dragons, a handful of endangered animals, lantern tunnels, and much more. These breathtaking lanterns can even be seen by motorists who are driving along Lake Shore Drive – and Zhou hopes that this will attract even more visitors.
“I know Chicago is a big city, and the Chinese Lantern Festival is a big tradition for us, and Chinese people usually have the Lantern Festival in the Spring time on the New Year,” said Zhou. “This is really a cultural tradition and that’s why we want the people in Chicago to know about it and experience that.”
Along with the enormous lanterns, visitors also get to visit booths with live demonstrations from artists who are from China and are skilled in dough modeling, Chinese knots, and inner painting. The family fun event also provides two free shows a night with performances by Chinese acrobats and dancers.