Monday, February 20, 2012

National Lantern Festival, Lugang, Changhua County


Now I am going to tackle putting the experience of the National Lantern Festival into words.

A little background: The lantern festival “season” starts on the 15th day after Chinese (Lunar) New Year and lasts two weeks. Thus, this year it ran from Feb. 6 until yesterday, the 19th. Originally, the lantern festivals were held at the city temples. People would parade from temple to temple with their lanterns. In 1989, these were consolidated into one annual national event to spare people from shuttling between them all. Even though there are two temples in Lugang, the actual festival took place between the two. Don and I never actually saw either temple during our time at the festival.

Main entrance.  We actually exited from here because we entered from the street, not the shuttle bus parking lot.
There are still a few local lantern festivals such as in Goushung. As the one in Goushung, they are smaller by comparison and do not run simultaneously with the national festival. There is one festival that takes place on the 15th day of the lunar New Year that is internationally known, separate from the National Lantern Festival. That is the Sky Lantern Festival in the small ancient coal village of Ping Xi where they launch thousands of traditional lanterns into the night sky, as we have all seen fabulous pictures of and consider this event as the lantern festival of China. This is a smaller one-day event even though thousands of people flood the little village for a glimpse of the spectacular sight.

The National Lantern Festival covers a large area of the city in which it is held. In 2008, it was held in Chai-yi county among the blocks of government buildings and our beautiful civic park. This year in Lugang, it encompassed probably 2 miles from the South Lantern Area to the North Lantern Area with a few streets branching off to the two local temples.

With that background, I am going to describe our own experience and observance of the National Lantern Festival in Lugang, Changhua County.

We took the HSR to the city of Taichung, the closest HSR station to Lugang. Having looked on the map, we knew it was quite a distance between the two. We read online that a free shuttle bus was offered from the train station to the festival, so that was our plan when we arrived. We followed the signs in the train station to the shuttle bus area, but we were in for a big surprise when got there. There was the longest line we had ever seen waiting to get on the shuttle bus(es)! The train station is a very large building, covering at least one square city block. We walked out one door to get in the line and began to walk to find the end of it. I took out my camera and began to photograph this line because we could not find its end. We went around the first corner of the building and could see it wrapped around the next corner as well. Each time we turned another corner around the building, the line continued on. People were standing patiently with hundreds of people in front of them.  

They didn’t seem to think anything strange of this never-ending line. When we found ourselves winding around the 4th corner of the building and the tail of the line was now meeting the head of the line, I had taken 9 pictures of this line and never repeated a section! We decided to hail a cab!

It was a good ride. Leaving Taichung, we crossed a river into Changhau City. This was a big city crisscrossed with a freeway system that looked like any other freeway system in America or Europe. We passed many, many “brownstone” complexes at an elevated level. Each of them, like ours, had stainless steel water tanks on the roofs to give warm/ hot water when heated by the sun…not a common occurrence in these winter months, though it was a beautiful sunny day yesterday. We were driving directly west at 4:30 pm. As the sun lay low in the sky it shone on those many, many water tanks making them look like soup cans lined up in rows. We also passed what appeared to be a “public” graveyard. I need more information on this subject, but I will add a picture I took in a “cemetery” near our house so you can see how different their burial sites are from ours in the US.  

Traffic became very congested the closer we got to the festival area. Scooter after scooter passed by our cab…zoom on the right side, zoom on the left side. They were non-stop, again carrying as many people as possible. We would come to a full stop for several minutes at a time and then nudge a little farther. It was like being in rush hour traffic in LA or inching down Snelling Ave. during the MN State Fair. Those friends who are not from MN cannot imagine this comparison, but it is fair to say that the MN State Fair traffic and crowds can rival any big city event for its two-week annual run in August. The other accurate comparison would be Disneyland on Christmas Day. Lugang was expecting 5 million visitors to attend the festival over two weeks. The police were out in full-force trying to control the flow of traffic.

The taxi finally turned into a city street and dropped us at a corner where the driver pointed in the direction of the festival. We stood on the corner getting our bearings for only moments when a tall, slender Chinese man asked us in English if we needed help. He ran to a store that had maps of the festival area, but returned saying, “No English.” He gave us a map in Mandarin showing us where we were. The rest was quite self-explanatory. We could see the main street that led between the two main areas of activity, the north venue and the south venue. The north venue was the center of activity. We marked ourselves on the map (like “You Are Here”) and headed from this crowded side street north to connect with the main street, which ran east and west.
Because the Strait of Taiwan was a short distance directly west of us, we were hit by the cold sea wind as soon as we turned the corner onto the main street, Zhongshan Road. I quickly wrapped the scarf I had brought around my neck and put on my gloves. Aside from noticing the cold wind, we discovered we were entering what is called “The 1,000 Mile Dragon Gallery.” The street was closed to vehicles and became a massive pedestrian walkway. Block-long dragons hung overhead. Each block or two had a different version of a dragon. They were non-stop the entire length of this main street connecting the south venue with the north.  

Shortly after we turned this corner, we saw a Chinese couple taking pictures, as everyone was. The wife was taking one of her husband with the lantern dragon over his head in the background. I asked, in pantomime, if she wanted to get in the picture with him. “Yes, yes!” “Shi-shi, shi-shi!” She then offered to do the same for us. Thus, Don and I have a rare photo of the two of us…at the Lantern Festival!  

These dragons hanging over the street were fabulous! Each one was different, though all made from lanterns. There was an orange one and a pink one and a green one. There was one depicting the “dragon boats,” famous in this area.  

There was one block that was hung with rows and rows of lights in shapes of fish and waves. The street was lined with food vendors and the local shops were open for business. There was street entertainment. We walked through this area when the sun was just about to set. As we walked, the sky drew darker and the lights began to turn on. It would be another hour before it actually got dark and the full beauty of the dragons would be lit up. But we needed to move on.  

Move on we did. We turned toward the “Main Theme Lantern Area.” This main venue was bordered by displays of lanterns from all around the country that had been entered in the lantern competition. These were in the shape of flowers and dragons and children and their most famous landmark, Taipei 101. The winner of this competition would be crowned “Lantern King.”

Taiwan's Empire State Building...Taipei 101, 2nd tallest building in the world.

Another contest entry; taken later in the evening.
There were not only dozens and dozens of lanterns in this area, but all of the trees were wound with lights…we’d call them Christmas lights, but instead of Christmas colors, they were purples, pinks and oranges. It was a fairyland of lights. The wind was blowing so strongly that the branches of the trees were swaying, and that caused the lights to look as if they were twinkling. Don and I were oohing and aahing at this point, “but we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Because of the route we took in getting to this area, we found ourselves entering into the main theme area from a side walkway. The first thing we saw was a tall pagoda lantern…very, very pretty…

but then we turned the corner! There was an enormous stage (65yards x 22yards) with red skirting that held life-size scenes from Chinese culture. They were so…so…so…Chinese! This is what everyone in the world has in mind when they think “Chinese”! There it was…bigger than life! The sun was going down fast. The darker it got, the brighter the lanterns got. This was awesome! We forgot we were cold, we forgot it was windy, we forgot we were one (or should I say two) in a crowd of thousands. It was a sight that completely overwhelmed me!  Here is some of what we were gazing on:

Confucius Temple
Zhonghua Gate Castle

Women playing Majong.

Temple Gate

Once we could pull ourselves away from that main display, we turned around and directly behind us was a pathway to follow through  four "Welcome Lantern Pillars" and gate.

This pathway brought us under an enormous lantern that was shaped like a gourd. The word for “gourd” in Mandarin is a homophone for “fortune,” so the gourd has come to symbolize good fortune. This open space was called the “Fortune Gate Lantern Area” which led to the “Blessing Lantern Forest.” As one can imagine, it was rows and rows of trees and lattices hung with gourd-shaped lanterns.  

Fortune Gate Lantern
In this area, there was one of the five “secondary” national lanterns, the “Bisi Bearing Fortune.” A bisi is a tortoise-like creature in Chinese folklore that loved to carry heavy things on its back. He did this with “diligence and without complaint,” as the story goes. The philanthropist of today is like bisi who can bring good fortune to others.

Bisi Bearing Fortune
We then moved into the entertainment open-air arena where there was a dance troupe performing on a huge stage before a huge crowd both in stadium seats as well as milling about a gigantic open space. The troupe was dancing to American pop music sung in English. They started out with “Puttin’ On the Ritz” and followed through the decades with songs like “Greased Lightning” and “YMCA.” During this performance, a laser show danced on the tall building bordering the stage. You could see the beam being shot from a top-story window from a building on the other side of the festival grounds.

Crowd watching the dance performance at the Entertainment Square.
Full stadium bleachers also watching the dancers on stage.
The dance stage was dwarfed by the centerpiece lantern of the festival, “Soaring Dragon in Radiant Skies.” The website describes this lantern as embodying “a dragon soaring across the world … abounding auspicious clouds and embracing virtue.” The soaring dragon was on a high pedestal and changed colors from inside its lantern body.

"Soaring Dragon Over Radiant Skies" (from behind)

We walked on to other displays before the dance performance was over. We could still hear the music clearly as we walked through another area of competing lanterns and through a grove of trees covered with lights. As Don and I walked arm in arm through this enchanted forest, we could hear that the hit song “Take My Breath Away” was playing over at the stage. I realize that song is arguably the most romantic song ever, but the title itself described the evening’s experience for me (and I dare say Don, as well)…it “took my breath away.”

We took the free shuttle back to the HSR station arriving just in time for the 8:00 train back to Chia-yi. We sat on the train and said to each other once again, “WOW! WOW! WOW! We’re really in China!”