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A Peek Into Dragon Lights Reno

A photo at night of a lit-up sign reading "Dragon Lights Festival" with brightly colored, lit-up fish and flowers surrounding it.
Alli Warner

Through the first week of August, Wilbur D. May Arboretum in Reno will be illuminated by nearly forty larger-than-life Chinese lanterns. The touring festival Dragon Lights displays crafted designs in an effort to share their centuries-old tradition and their culture. Our reporter Holly Hutchings checked it out.

A photo of a larger, multi-colored dragon lantern stretching through a park after dark.
Credit Alli Warner

The sun sets on a hot July night as close to a thousand people walk through the gardens at the arboretum. Dozens of Chinese lantern installations line the paved walkway. There are huge peacocks with brightly colored feathers spread wide, pandas playing in the trees and a thirty-foot-long multicolored dragon stretching through the garden.

As the daylight slips away, lights inside and outside the lanterns flip on one-by-one, and the gardens are illuminated.

“It's like a magical forest; it's crazy. It's incredibly beautiful. It's like we're in an Alice in Wonderland kinda type thing," said Shelly Burns, one of hundreds who took in the display.

The organization Dragon Lights travels to cities across the country. In China, the lantern festival is held to celebrate Chinese New Year, marking the return of spring. Family and friends gather as they welcome new life and the end of winter. This is the group’s first year in Reno.

“I think we see it as a really good platform for culture exchange and promoting cultural understanding between the US and China, or just China with the world,” explained event manager Huiyuan Liu.

She said China’s Zigong City is known for its lantern-making artisans. 2,000 residents actually specialize in the tradition, and 28 of them are part of the team that made the Reno show. One of them is designer Xiang Zhang. Zhang walks us through the exhibition while Huiyuan Liu translates.

“I was very young. I started to learn painting and drawing and I loved doing it, so when I got to college I chose to go with an art major," Zhang said. "I was also born and grew up in this city in Sichuan Province where it's famous for lantern making.”

A photo taken at night of three elephant lanterns wearing bright colors in a park, surrounded by lanterns that look like flowers.
Credit Alli Warner

Each installation tells a story about an aspect of Chinese culture. They have multiple lantern components at every stop, depicting the animals, food and lore of the East. Zhang is in charge of every detail. They begin as ideas in his mind, then go through a long process of being illustrated, welded into a form, and dressed in a hand-selected fabric, chosen with care and glued into place. He paints on finishing touches, like stripes or spots, then electricians put lights inside and out. The preparation took a month and was not without challenges.

We approach an imposing dragon that towers overhead and sprawls out the length of three school buses. Zhang describes why this was the hardest piece of the show: “The most difficult part in here, in this one in particular, was it's difficult to find a spot to even the display, so we spent a lot of time [to] level the whole display. And also since Reno is kind of windy compared to other places we've been, so we used a lot of wires to wire it down to make sure it stays here the whole time.”

Hugh Shapiro teaches the history of East Asia at UNR. He says events like these help draw out parallels between our two countries.

“People talk a lot about tradition in China, which is absolutely correct. Tradition is incredibly important and it does inform daily life in a very profound way; however, it's paradoxical because China is also incredibly forward looking and very optimistic and very upbeat and very positive about the future," he explained. "And I think culturally, the US and China have a lot in common, a lot of cultural resonance that people often ignore.”

A group of large, lit-up giraffe and lion lanterns on display in a park with tree-like lanterns in the background.
Credit Alli Warner

After the show wraps here, Dragon Lights will do it all again at their next stop in Milwaukee. Dragon Lights Reno is a featured Artown event and is open through August 5th with guided tours every night.

As a note of disclosure, KUNR is a media sponsor for Artown.

Holly Hutchings is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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