China Lights lantern festival’s Valley debut packs Chinese whimsy and culture

The China Lights lantern festival runs January 19 through February 25 at Craig Ranch Regional Park.
Photo: Wade Vandervort

Against the heavy gray of the first rain in 116 days, the dragon’s scales were electric. And they weren’t even lit.

In less than two weeks, the skyscraping lantern would be the centerpiece of an explosion of light at Craig Ranch Regional Park in North Las Vegas—the local unveiling of global touring attraction China Lights. But on this day, unsuspecting dog-walkers gaped at the dozens of fantastical tableaus marked only with small paper signs: “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH. COMING SOON.”

Starting January 19, the park will transform nightly into a glowing wonderland, building up to a Chinese New Year blowout on February 16. Live performers add a dynamic element in the amphitheater, from acrobats to a master of “kung fu tea.” (One lantern pays homage to the latter: A man with a sly smile and flushed cheeks strikes a pose with the pot’s long spout across his back, dark tea pouring into a beautifully patterned porcelain bowl.)

Vendors will sell handicrafts, like tiny glass vessels painted from the inside with impossibly fine brushes. Food offerings will range from savory Chinese dumplings to Filipino buko salad, a sweet drink with fresh fruit, fragrant jelly, tapioca balls, coconut and condensed milk. And cooking demos will take place during Asian Culture Weekend (January 26-28), when the bold may enter an egg-roll eating contest.

Event manager Huiyuan Liu, from the large southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, vouched for her team’s efforts to source authentic flavors of the Pacific Rim. The festival at large aims to bring slices of real China—a cultural trade mission wrapped in pure spectacle.

China Lights Festival Setup at Craig Ranch

“We are the most diverse city in Nevada; so we get a chance to show off our diversity and then educate our residents about this wonderful civilization and its traditions,” North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee explains.

Lee emphasizes the connection to the city’s Asian population, and “sister-city” dynamics with two Chinese locales through business ventures. He sees China Lights strengthening ties while raising North Las Vegas’ profile as a host for “super-mega events.”

This could be without a doubt the largest event yet at Craig Ranch,” Lee says of the expected 150,000-200,000 attendees in the first year of a five-year contract. “The largest human migration in the world is for Chinese New Year. ... I believe in this Valley [China Lights] will be the attraction of thousands and thousands of people who can’t get back to China but want to be around the type of citizenry they grew up with and collaborate in the joy.”

Liu thinks Craig Ranch’s meandering layout is ideal for expressing that joy. “When you walk in, you don’t get to see everything at once. But whichever way you turn you’ll find some surprise,” she says.

Floating jellyfish frame the pond, ready to throw their reflections on its palatial mirror. A sea tunnel near the main entrance brings seahorses, sharks and a grinning whale, and fan-tailed bettas and angelfish pop into other scenes. A clownfish cozy in a rainbow of anemone is a callout to Pixar’s Nemo, and he’s not the only famous face.

Warriors march below China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, representing the Terracotta Army discovered in his tomb’s sprawling underground complex in 1974. Many of the displays have historical or cultural significance, inspired by Chinese heritage sites or folktales. Light boxes share these backstories, like the dragon’s embodiment of power and luck in the Eastern world.

“It’s always the highlight,” Liu says, adding that the bearded serpent is the only lantern that appears in every production of China Lights.

Under its steely gaze are chubby pandas tumbling through poppies and bamboo, their blue eyes strangely animated. Liu explains that details are painted on the silken surface of the lanterns by hand. “We only have one artist who does that. This person is the core of this whole thing. He designs each lantern and how they should be placed in different corners of the park, and he does all the final touches, like the eyes and scales,” Liu says of Li Fang, who conceptualized the exhibits with his twin Fang Li. And when the switch flips, some of the pandas will move on swings and a teeter-totter.

The brothers and Liu are with Tianyu Arts & Culture Inc., an American subsidiary of the Chinese company that has produced the touring show for more than two decades, though this is only its second year in the U.S. The operation is based in China’s Sichuan province, at the epicenter of Chinese-lantern making. “In the city of Zigong, this technique is preserved the best. They have more than 1,000 artisans who live there, and all their family have been there for generations, so most of their skills are passed down,” Liu says. “These people are the best who do this.”

The artistry isn’t just in the painting. Through dyed polyester skin a zebra’s delicate skeleton shows in the daylight, metal wires creating hauntingly lifelike bone structure. Ears, markings and leg positions make each animal in the herd unique. You might miss these details when lanterns are blazing, but from welders to electricians, their creators honor the art form.

Previews in the form of kylin—think of a lion crossed with a deer and a fish—have been glowing at Boyd Gaming properties to promote the fest and celebrate the lead-up to Chinese New Year.

Boyd signed on as the primary sponsor because of its longstanding relationship with the local Asian community (predominantly at the Gold Coast) and recent investment in North Las Vegas with the acquisition of Aliante and the Cannery. “It was a perfect fit,” David Strow, Boyd’s vice president of corporate communications, says.

China Lights is a thank-you to the company’s friends and customers, Strow adds, and a way to amplify Las Vegas’ celebration of Chinese New Year. “We see this as an opportunity to introduce such an important cultural event for a large segment of our community to the broader community, so that everyone can share in what it’s all about.”

When the holiday hits in mid-February, fireworks will ignite over Craig Ranch. The first 10,000 festivalgoers that week (February 16-22) will receive a traditional red envelope with a gift in the spirit of “lucky money.”

But door prizes are just frosting on the lanternscape, which takes the idea of a light show to another planet. Seeing just the entry arch lit, the candy-colored koi and lily pads with hot-magenta lotus blossoms, you kinda wish the tracers would hang in the air forever.

How China Lights' Lanterns are born

Design and manufacturing company Sichuan Tianyu creates lantern shows that have played to millions across the globe. Each project takes months to fabricate, starting in the studio in Zigong.

1. Up to three artisans direct the creative. They design lanterns from the ground up, drawing schematics on computers and physical outlines on plywood sheets.

2. With these templates, welders craft lantern forms with thin metal rods.

3. Electricians install internal LEDs (and external light tubes once the lanterns are nearly complete), closely following curves and choosing warmer or cooler light depending on the desired color qualities.

4. Polyester dyed for specific characters is carefully glued onto the forms. Then they are shipped to show locations.

5. When the components arrive, the chief artist manages the placement and assembly of the scenes around the site. Then he paints details onto each piece.

CHINA LIGHTS LAS VEGAS January 19-February 25, daily 5:30-10 p.m., $12-$50. Craig Ranch Regional Park, 628 Craig Road, chinalightslv.com.

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