Ar­ti­sans and en­ter­tain­ers

A peek be­hind the scenes at China Lights in Bo­erner Botan­i­cal Gar­dens

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Front Page - Don Behm

Zhao Xiaoli’s foot jug­gling skills had taken her to per­for­mances around the world in the past decade be­fore ar­riv­ing in Mil­wau­kee last month for the China Lights lan­tern fes­ti­val. She cap­ti­vates nightly au­di­ences by rapidly spin­ning a heavy ta­ble with her feet while up­side down.

Liu Yufu has been hand­craft­ing fab­ric lan­tern sculp­tures for more than 20 years in his na­tive China be­fore com­ing to Mil­wau­kee as su­per­vi­sor of the crew of ar­ti­sans who main­tain the lighted lan­tern dis­plays. They are the fo­cal point of this year’s third an­nual fes­ti­val at Bo­erner Botan­i­cal Gar­dens in Whit­nall Park.

They and the rest of the 32-mem­ber crew of per­form­ing artists and ar­ti­sans from China have made Hales Cor­ners their res­i­dence since mid-Septem­ber. They work for Tianyu Arts and Cul­ture Inc., the Amer­i­can sub­sidiary of Sichuan Tianyu, a ma­jor Chi­nese de­sign and man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany lo­cated in Zigong City.

They haven’t had free time to check out much of the lo­cal cul­ture, al­though some did visit the Mil­wau­kee Art Mu­seum and walk along the Lake Michi­gan shore­line.

While work­ing at China Lights, the crew from China re­sides in apart­ments at Plum Tree on West Col­lege Av­enue next to Whit­nall Park, within walk­ing dis­tance of Bo­erner, said Craig Chen, on-site man­ager and in­ter­preter. The lan­tern com­pany rents the apart­ments for its workers.

A Ford F-150 pickup truck was rented back

in Au­gust to help workers with twice­weekly shop­ping trips to Wal­mart, Sam’s Club and Pa­cific Pro­duce, an Asian food mar­ket in Oak Creek. Workers re­cently turned in the truck in fa­vor of a sedan as fewer shop­ping trips are made and not as many bulky items are needed, Chen said.

Taste of home, sort of

All of the ar­ti­sans and per­for­mance artists from China eat three meals a day at a cook tent set up at Bo­erner, ad­ja­cent to the one-way path tak­ing fes­ti­val vis­i­tors through the lan­tern dis­plays.

The tent is equipped with a restau­rant-size wok and rice cook­ers, and the idea is to give workers some­thing ap­prox­i­mat­ing the food from their Sichuan prov­ince home.

Sev­eral bags of jalapeño pep­pers are piled on ta­bles along with onions, cel­ery, pota­toes and car­rots. Pork and beef are stored in a freezer.

“Our workers like spicy food,” Chen said in re­sponse to a ques­tion about the jalapeño pep­pers. “They are not as hot as our pep­pers in China.”

“Workers joke about adding more and more jalapeños” to their meals and it is still not hot enough, he said.

One side of the tent is open and Chen joked that was done so they could watch the fre­quent rain­storms. “We wear jack­ets while sit­ting at the ta­bles so we don’t get wet,” he said.

A sep­a­rate crew of 32 ar­ti­sans ar­rived in Au­gust to as­sem­ble the lanterns and set up more than 40 sep­a­rate dis­plays along a path ex­tend­ing three­fourths of a mile through the gar­dens.

The week that China Lights opened here in late Septem­ber, the first group of workers moved on to Colum­bus, Ohio, where they are set­ting up a lan­tern fes­ti­val there, Chen said. They will be go­ing to Cary, North Carolina, af­ter that.

Va­ri­ety of dis­plays

The theme of this year’s China Lights fes­ti­val at Bo­erner is Panda-Ma­nia.

In the Panda Park lan­tern dis­play, pan­das ap­pear right at home in tall grass or on a rock lan­tern. At the Panda Wall dis­play, vis­i­tors meet panda lanterns decked in col­or­ful robes.

But there is a great va­ri­ety of lan­tern sculp­tures in this fes­ti­val — just as in past years.

The Wish­ing Tree dis­play is mak­ing its world pre­miere at Bo­erner and its sprawl­ing, lighted branches are de­signed to pro­vide chil­dren and the young-at-heart with a fairy­land mo­ment along the path.

And there is more: A dozen dol­phin lanterns leap out of waves; pen­guins with col­or­ful crests on their heads scram­ble over rocks; red-crowned cranes greet vis­i­tors.

Re­turn en­gage­ment

The Whit­nall Park run con­tin­ues through Oct. 21, but likely will be ex­tended one week to Oct. 28, said pro­moter Ralph Gar­rity of Fes­ti­val Pro LLC. The ad­di­tional days will pro­vide more time to at­tend the fes­ti­val for peo­ple who might have been put off by re­cent rains.

The 2017 fes­ti­val set an at­ten­dance record of more than 110,000 vis­i­tors, though Gar­rity ac­knowl­edged a few Satur­day nights of the run last year were too crowded for some peo­ple to fully en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Gar­rity planned an at­ten­dance goal of 100,000 this year and they were half­way to that mark as of Oct. 8 de­spite many rainy days in the first two weeks, he said.

Mil­wau­kee County Ex­ec­u­tive Chris Abele and Bo­erner Di­rec­tor Shirley Wal­czak are telling Gar­rity they want the fes­ti­val, and its pro­jected $250,000 in rev­enue for the parks depart­ment, back at Bo­erner for a fourth con­sec­u­tive year in 2019. Abele ramped up the pres­sure by stat­ing in a 2019 bud­get mes­sage to the County Board that it will re­turn.

While Gar­rity has not made the of­fi­cial an­nounce­ment of a 2019 fes­ti­val, he did say a de­ci­sion will be made soon — while not­ing that rep­re­sen­ta­tives of other U.S. cities in­ter­ested in host­ing their own lan­tern fes­ti­vals con­tinue to visit Bo­erner.

Lan­tern fes­ti­vals have been held in China for more than 400 years.

In 2015, the Sichuan Pro­vin­cial Depart­ment of Com­merce an­nounced a goal of hold­ing 100 lan­tern shows in 100 cities world­wide to show­case tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture.

Mil­wau­kee County was the first Mid­west­ern com­mu­nity to host China Lights with the 2016 fes­ti­val at Bo­erner.


Zhao Xiaoli, a foot jug­gler at China Lights: Panda-Ma­nia lan­tern fes­ti­val at Bo­erner Botan­i­cal Gar­dens, prac­tices jug­gling a ta­ble while Chow Jie, a Chi­nese yo-yo per­former, looks on. More pho­tos and a video at JSOn­


Liu Yufu re­pairs torn fab­ric in­side the 65-foot-long shark lan­tern sculp­ture at China Lights: Panda-Ma­nia lan­tern fes­ti­val at Bo­erner Botan­i­cal Gar­dens. He is su­per­vi­sor of ar­ti­sans re­spon­si­ble for main­tain­ing lighted, fab­ric lan­tern sculp­tures dur­ing the fes­ti­val.

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