Chinese Lantern Festival returning to Philadelphia with new exhibits

 The Chinese Palace Lantern is brushed by the boughs of a cherry tree. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Chinese Palace Lantern is brushed by the boughs of a cherry tree. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Chinese Lantern Festival will return to Philadelphia this summer.

For the second year, the nighttime display of giant, ornate lanterns shaped like dragons, pandas, and Chinese pagodas will take over Franklin Square for five weeks, beginning May 9.

1500 individual lanterns, created by Tianyu Arts and Culture based in Zigong, China, will be arranged into 29 different displays of the ancient Chinese craft. These lanterns have a quite modern construction, made with welded steel infrastructures wrapped in colored silk, illuminated by LED lights.

The 200-foot dragon, the centerpiece of the festival, will return, but all of the other displays will be new: a phoenix tableau, lions, giant umbrellas, and a new arrangement of pandas.

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The festival of fantastically ornate light will also feature traditional food, performances, and crafts from China. It wouldn’t be a Philadelphia temporary park attraction without a beer garden, this one in the shadow of the giant dragon lantern.

John Chin, executive director of the Chinatown Development Corporation, said the first festival was a shot in the arm for the neighborhood.

“The residents of Chinatown loved it,” said Chin. “Last year was the first time Philadelphia had a lantern festival. If you go to China or Hong Kong lantern festivals are an annual event, but when you migrate to Philadelphia we just didn’t have the capacity to put on a festival like this.”

Chin said he has anecdotal evidence that restaurant owners and shopkeepers around the square felt a boost in sales last year. This year he is doing a more formal survey to get accurate data on the festival’s financial impact on the neighborhood.

The festival is learning from what happened last year.

According to Historic Philadelphia, which manages Franklin Square, 92,000 people bought tickets to the first festival, bringing in over $200,00 for park maintenance.

Since taking over the maintenance and programming of Franklin Square 11 years ago, Historic Philadelphia has been largely responsible for transforming it from a derelict eyesore to a destination park for tourists, daycare centers, and residents seeking a clean, green respite.

The cost of maintaining the park was the justification for bringing in the lantern festival, which wrapped the public park in an eight-foot chain-link fence for seven weeks, and charged $17 for admission.

“Last year, we heard from some community members that the fence surrounding the square gave them the feeling they weren’t welcome during the festival, or gave the appearance that the square was closed,” said Historic Philadelphia CEO Amy Needle. “Historic Philadelphia took that feedback to heart.”

The black-out fencing is necessary for both security and to block ambient light of passing car headlights from interfering with lantern glow. Needle hired a landscape architect Brian Dragon to re-think the fencing to make it more welcoming.

“During the day it was just a fence with a black scrim. It didn’t look so great,” said Dragon (yes, that’s his name). “We attended the event, and it was pretty bad to see it that way.”

Dragon designed a fencing system with panels that swing open during free daytime hours, creating 20-foot gaps in the fence every ten feet. At night, when ticketing goes into effect, the fence will be closed, wrapped in a scrim printed with pastoral Chinese garden imagery.

“It’s more subtle and subdued,” said Dragon.

The park’s playground will be outside the fencing, accessible for free as usual.

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