A dragon made of thousands of plates, cups and spoons, hand-tied together with string, at the Missouri Botanical Garden's Chinese Lantern Festival. (V. LaCapra/VOA)
A dragon made of thousands of plates, cups and spoons, hand-tied together with string, at the Missouri Botanical Garden's Chinese Lantern Festival. (V. LaCapra/VOA)

Even though the Saint Louis, Missouri area has a small Chinese population, the midsize city on the Mississippi River is going Chinese in a big way.

The Missouri Botanical Garden, an urban oasis of plants, trees, flowers and biological research, is staging a Chinese Lantern Festival. And it is quite a show.

At the 32-hectare Missouri Botanical Garden, musicians, dancers and other performers helped inaugurate what organizers say is first event of its kind ever staged in the United States.

Lantern Festival Shines Light on Chinese Culture

Dozens of artisans worked to create 26 displays highlighting culture, history and folklore from China. Some of the scenes are modest, like one featuring child-sized pandas, displayed amid a stand of their dietary staple, bamboo, growing in the Botanical Garden.

Other lanterns are enormous, like the towering four-faced Buddha, whose golden silk costume sparkles in the sun, rustling in the breeze.

At night, brilliantly illuminated, it appeals to local visitors like Darren Monahan. "I like the Buddha one, so far that's been my favorite. There's something very, very unique about it that just stood out to me."

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Other lantern displays conjure up folk tales or historical personalities. The Botanical Garden rejected some proposed contemporary lantern scenes, such as Disney characters and Hello Kitty, in favor of more traditional subjects.

"I want to celebrate the Chinese culture and the history, so that this is an experience that is unlike anything anybody in St. Louis or the United States has seen," said exhibits manager Lynn Kerkemeyer.

Chinese artisans came from Zigong, in Sichuan province, to create the lanterns. They did most of the work on-site, making the steel skeletons and covering them with hand-cut silk panels, stitched together using foot-powered, treadle sewing machines.

It took four shipping containers to bring in all of the materials and equipment, including a ton of rice to feed the 33 artisans for two months while they worked here.

They prefer the taste of rice from home, said Spencer Tan with LanternFest, the Chinese company that produced the displays, adding that food is "definitely" important.
"I think that my policy is that, in order to move your people, the first thing you need to take care of is the stomach. So we bring our own rice. And not only that, we bring our own chef as well."

Dragon Dances at Chinese Lantern Festival

Most of the lanterns are made of silk, lit from within. But perhaps the most impressive display in the Lantern Festival is one made of 40,000 plates, spoons and cups hand-tied together with string to form a pair of enormous, undulating porcelain dragons. The two white creatures face each other contesting over a giant silk pearl between them. The display stretches almost 100 meters.

And Spencer Tan said the dragons do more than look at each other. "The dragon heads start to move, there's smoke, and in between there is a pearl. The petal will open up, it will spin, and then smoke will come out from there."

Biologist Mike Amspoker of Westminster College, about 180 kilometers away in Fulton, Missouri, brought his photography class to the botanical garden, unaware of the lantern festival.

"This is, this is spectacular, and I can't believe that these are all plates," he said.

The Porcelain Dragon is only one of several dragons on display. According to the Chinese calendar, this is the year of the dragon - a symbol of good fortune. And as China's acting Chicago consul general, Kun Lu, suggests, the dragon and other lanterns offer a good introduction to Chinese culture.

"The people here in St Louis can look at the Chinese lantern and they can have the idea of the Chinese tradition. And also, it's very, very beautiful, especially at night. It's very, very vivid and very, very beautiful here," Lu said.

The Missouri Botanical Garden is one of the world's leading plant research and conservation institutions. The Lantern Festival coincides with the garden's "Year of China" observance, marking decades of research and collaboration, including an ongoing project - The Flora of China - to document the more than 30,000 native plant species in the country.

But on a cool, misty evening, that probably was not what attracted most Lantern Festival visitors like Ann Mitori, who said "there were pictures in the paper about this, but when you see it, life-size, it's just awesome."

The Lantern Festival continues through mid-August at the Missouri Botanical Garden.