Lantern Festival Shines a Light on Chinese Culture

The Rose Kennedy Greenway Chinatown Park is usually a calm oasis within downtown Boston.

Composed of lush greenery sprinkled with bright red arches, plenty of outdoor seating, and public art installations, the park is a destination for Bostonians and visitors in need of a quiet moment.

But this past Saturday, the Greenway’s Chinatown Park was abuzz with activity as visitors flocked to the third annual Lantern Festival.

The generally calm and tranquil park was filled with a large stage and adorned with countless multicolored paper lanterns, while the surrounding Chinatown streets were packed with a number of white tents.

Courtney Ho, the executive director of the Chinatown Main Street, first organized the Lantern Festival two years ago. It was originally created in order to celebrate the August moon at a time closer to its actual occurrence. After its first year, the festival took off.

The festival officially began at 10 a.m., and festivities kicked off with the event’s opening ceremony: the traditional lion dance.

As two dancers—both under a glimmering gold lion costume—performed an intricate routine to traditional music played by nearby musicians, a large crowd filled the available seating and surrounded the stage in order to watch, infusing the area with a kind of energy and excitement that was the perfect beginning to such a festival.

Performances like traditional Chinese folk dances, martial arts demonstrations, and musical demonstrations continued throughout the day, but many onlookers wandered throughout the festival during downtime, exploring the many other forms of entertainment it had to offer.

For many visitors, this meant browsing through the sea of white tents, most of which housed temporary shops for trinket vendors.

According to Ho, many of the vendors were actually local shop owners, although some were more recent startup businesses eager to get exposure for their products.

Festival goers could purchase everything from fresh strawberries, to more lasting souvenirs like large stalks of bamboo, orchids, bonsai trees, and ornate pieces of jade jewelry.

One vendor also sold stunning flour figurines—a form of edible Chinese folk art—of multicolored fish, chickens, and even people, made to order.

Those in search of even more edible options were not disappointed, as the festival offered a number of choices for those looking to experience more traditional Chinese cuisine.

Easy-to-manage savory items, such as meat kabobs and soup, were available for purchase, and samples of traditional Chinese mooncakes were also available to visitors.

These mooncakes, which are dense and often filled with red bean paste, intrigued many first-time samplers, even leading some of them to explore a few of the famous Chinatown bakeries a few steps from the food stalls.

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For many of the festival’s visitors—such as Connie and Sophia, two friends who arrived at the Lantern Festival after exploring the Asian American Festival in the Boston Commons—the food available was actually the Lantern Festival’s main draw.

“[This is my] first time attending the festival,” Connie said. “We heard about it and wanted to check it out because we were around … We came for food, we were hungry.”

This kind of discovery is what Ho hopes many visitors will experience.

Even if they come for the food, they will undoubtedly leave with a better idea of Chinese culture—something Ho intends to impress upon those inside and outside of the Chinatown community.

“A lot more people understand the Chinese culture [after visiting the festival],” Ho said. “They understand what a moon cake is now, [and] some people are like, ‘I know August Moon, I know what that is.’”

Despite the festival’s success, Ho does not plan to expand the festival soon. This is partly because of how well the Chinatown Park space lends itself to such an event, and partly because of the relative ease of organizing a festival of this smaller size.

As she had most of the details worked out after leading the festival for so many years, Ho noted that this year’s biggest challenge was installing the elaborate overhead lantern display with a rented crane.  

Even with her experience, Ho emphasizes that the festival certainly changes, and hopes that the next Lantern Festival will not only bring curious new faces, but some familiar ones as well.

“Things change from year to year, so sometimes just coming down [is what visitors should do],” Ho said. “Sometimes new performances come up, different performances come up, whether it’s more Western traditions or more cultural traditions.”

Featured Image by Madeleine D’Angelo / Heights Editor

September 14, 2016