Artisans and entertainers
A peek behind the scenes at China Lights in Boerner Botanical Gardens
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.
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 JSOnline.com
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.