Philadelphia Chinese Lantern Festival 2016
Zigong, Sichuan province, is astutely known as the Lantern Town of the South Kingdom. Since the Tang Dynasty, the city has ended its New Year celebrations with glorious displays of lanterns and artistic performance. The Lantern Festival has become a Chinese tradition, ever more elaborate and spectacular – and gone on a road show around the world.
The Philadelphia Chinese Lantern Festival is the first such celebration in the northeast United States. Visiting friends in the area, Spousal Unit and I hopped a train downtown to check it out.
The Philadelphia Chinese Lantern Festival is hosted in Franklin Square, an easily walkable park near Chinatown and the transportation hub of Jefferson Station. The park remains open during the day, with the lanterns lit and free to view. The festival starts in the evening and requires paid admission. Crafts, food, and drink are available, including alcohol Thursday through Saturday. Two performances are held each night, featuring a variety of traditional arts.
The eponymous lanterns, from beach ball-sized spheres to a dragon the length of multiple school buses, were created by Zigong artisans and shipped over for onsite assembly. They gleamed with shiny gold trim and dotted fabric, and some also moved and changed color. Even in the twilight in which we viewed them – as opposed to the ideal background of night – the lanterns transformed the park into a wonderland. Arches, flowers, and windmills lined the walking paths. Standalone displays were protected with fences but easy to approach and appreciate from multiple angles. Bilingual signs, in English and Chinese, explained the symbolism of each lantern.
Sadly, the festival is fenced in with ugly and conspicuous black mesh that sticks out like whoa in non-night photos. For the price of admission to such a visual event, I’d think the fences could be covered with some muted backdrop that blends better into the park.
Stuffed from an excellent vegetarian dinner at New Harmony, Spousal Unit and I did not check out any of the food options, though I belatedly appreciated the available variety. We did enjoy the craft beer bike and the cocktails – coconut lychee for me, Thai basil for him – designed to complement any of the available choices of alcohol. The bartender was happy to recommend their personal favorites.
I bought tickets online, but there were plenty available at the gate. Tickets are for specific one-hour time slots – to manage influx, not to restrict your time in the park. You are simply and politely informed not to get in line at 6 if your ticket is for 7. You are also offered a reentry stamp when leaving. The allotted hour gave us plenty of time to appreciate each display and a couple of drinks in the Dragon Beer Garden.
Performance-wise, we enjoyed a group of dancers with quail feather headdresses and a solo dancer with a fabric fan. A singer – unfortunately experiencing technical difficulties with her audio – went on as we were heading out.
The Philadelphia Chinese Lantern Festival is fun, friendly, and relaxing. If you are on a budget, stop by Franklin Park during the day. To get the most out of the festival proper, go after dark and plan to catch some performances. Even without the optimal experience, I’m glad I took the chance to go and support a lovely show of cultural exchange. I hope to see more like this in the future.
Philadelphia Chinese Lantern Festival
April 22 – June 12, 2016