It’s the last week to catch the 25,000 lights glowing inside handmade silk sculptures of the Chinese Lantern Festival in Franklin Square. The colorful installation at the Old City park is about to wrap up its seventh year, which saw the return of live performances, interactive folk art exhibits, and a brand new sea dragon tunnel.
That 100-foot tunnel is one of 34 displays you can walk through. These join nearly 1,500 other pieces, constructed on site by Chinese artists using materials shipped from China, for a true cultural immersion.
“The lantern festival is a big thing in China and also other Asian countries,” Ellen Z., the on-site product manager for Tianyu Arts & Culture, which produces the annual festival in cooperation with Historic Philadelphia, told videographer students in WHYY’s High School Journalism Camp. “That’s something significant to us, and we want to bring it up to other parts of the world.”
In Chinese and Asian cultures, Ellen explained, lantern festivals not only celebrate the lunar new year, but are also held to commemorate ancestors and promote togetherness.
Tianyu decided to hold this festival in Philadelphia because of the city’s prominent Asian population, she said. Around 8% of Philly’s population is of Asian heritage, per 2022 U.S. Census data, and 11% of the city’s small businesses are Asian-owned.
Food and drink at the festival are provided by two of those local businesses — restaurants Sang Kee and Oishii, which have everything from steam buns and fried wontons to pineapple or watermelon smoothies available to purchase while you explore.
Tickets are required to enter when the fest is lit up during the evening (6 to 11 p.m. daily, with timed reservations needed on Friday and Saturday night), but during the day Franklin Square is open as usual.
Once inside, ticketholders can catch various live performances, including face-changing, jar juggling, jiu jitsu, plate spinning, and acrobatics. There are also opportunities to watch artisans craft pieces using aluminum braiding, lantern painting, and inner-bottle painting, where specialized brushes are used to create scenes on the interior of glass vessels.
All of this put together makes a scene reminiscent of cultural festivities in China, attendees say.
“This actually reminds me a lot of parts of China,” one festival-goer said. “It’s so nice. And it gives me this sense of belonging here.”
Popular displays include the 33-ft. high Lingzhi Tree (a type of mushroom), which generates bubbles, the Panda Paradise exhibit with nearly two dozen pandas, and the 164-ft long land dragon, which blows smoke out of its mouth. It all makes for a very different experience than in less-interactive exhibitions.
“In museums, I feel like it’s more of a tight observational space,” said another festival attendee. “But here people can really look at things, enjoy things, and not just learn about the culture, but embrace the culture.”
Scroll down for some photos from the installation.
The last day for the 2023 Philadelphia Chinese Lantern Festival in Franklin Square is Aug. 13. Tickets are available online.