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Chinese lanterns dazzle and delight

Chinese lantern festivals are spreading throughout the United States and one such fest has made its way to the Windy City. The festival offers a sprawling lantern exhibit of 39 displays, including two 100-foot-long dragons at the center of the lot. Appearing in Chicago for the first time, the Dragon Lights festival is open until May 6 in Soldier Field’s south parking lot.

Tianyu Arts & Culture, Inc. hosts the festival, which is set to visit a total of 15 U.S. cities. It’s the American subsidiary of parent design and manufacturing company Sichuan Tianyu, which might be known for its work on the set of the James Bond movie, “Skyfall,” according to onsite manager Grace Zhou.

Lanterns aren’t the only attraction at the festival, there are also traditional performances and festival food. Each lantern display is handmade at each location, using materials shipped from China, according Zhou, who’s been traveling with the festival for two years.

She said it took about a month for everything to be set up even with teams of at least five people working on each display because of a multi-step process involving the work of designers, welders, electricians and gluers. Uncooperative Chicago weather also slowed the process, according to Zhou. One dragon took a team of 10 people four to five days to complete.

“It’s a lot of work, especially on concrete ground like this and in such a windy city like Chicago,” Zhou said. “It was too windy. It seemed like everything was against us.”

The cold weather has affected the event’s attendance, which opened March 30. The company expects 80,000 people to visit during the five-week installation, according to Zhou. When asked how many people attended so far, Zhou declined to give a number but said business is slow. The festival closed a few times as a result of cold weather and a lack of business, according to Zhou, but she hops warmer days will bring more people.

Despite poor weather, the fest’s 60 artisans were able to turn 15 shipping containers full of materials into larger-than-life figures and animals. Families made up most of the visitors taking in the brilliant display.

“Some pieces have cultural background, like the main one, which is about two dragons playing with a jade ball,” Rong Chun Zhu, a 44-year-old father from Iowa City, said.

He said he’s happy to have an opportunity to celebrate his culture with his daughter: “It’s good for the kids to enjoy something they can connect to their life.”

Festivals like this can serve an important purpose of reaffirming cultural ties, especially for those who don’t live in their home country.

“What we’re doing now is to keep our traditions as long as possible,” Zhou said. “If we aren’t doing this right now, people will forget about this and forget about our real traditions.”

Dragon Lights Chicago is open weekdays and Sunday from 5:30 p.m-10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5:30 p.m.-11:30 p.m. Tickets and $13 for children, seniors, military and college students on Thursdays, and $20 for adults.

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