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Chinese lantern festival to open historic Magnolia Plantation past dark for first time

Charleston's Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, the oldest public tourist site in the area, is introducing something new this year — a several months-long Chinese lantern festival that will open the botanical attraction past dark for the first time. 

This year's display, "Lights of Magnolia: Reflections of a Cultural Exchange," will be the first in a three-year partnership between Magnolia and the Zigong Lantern Group, a China-based company that has designed and created lantern displays in more than 200 cities around the world. 

The gardens, which is often known for its moss-draped oaks and camellias, will be decorated in cherry blossom trees, a sprawling dragon display and mythical creatures called qilins. 

In addition to traditional Chinese imagery, the lanterns will also reflect Lowcountry plants and animals. For example, the South Carolina display will be the first time Zigong has made alligators.

Between the 23 lantern displays being created and installed at Magnolia, some 220,000 square feet of silk, 30 tons of steel and 20,000 LED bulbs will be used.

The amount of power required to light the displays is enough to run a small neighborhood, said Magnolia's executive director, Tom Johnson.

It's going to cost Magnolia about $25,000 a month just for the generators, he said.

But the attraction is optimistic about the expected return. The festival is running during what are typically the slower months of the year for Magnolia, mid-November through mid-March, and they expect the show will significantly boost attendance. 

Employees at Zigong's North America-based office approached Magnolia more than a year ago after researching botanical gardens in the southern states that could accommodate a large-scale lantern show. 

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The cultural tradition of Chinese lantern festivals goes back more than 2,000 years, but their popularity in the U.S., and particularly mid-size cities, is more recent but growing. Also this year, Zigong is putting lantern festivals at the Racine Zoo in Wisconsin, the Nashville Zoo and the eco-adventure park Jungle Island in Miami.

The Children's Garden at Magnolia has been blocked off and transformed into a work area, where Zigong's team welds steel and stretches silk. Teams in China started work even earlier to prepare the materials to make the lanterns, which were shipped into the Port of Charleston and transported to Magnolia.

And before that, it took about six months for Zigong to design Magnolia's displays.

One of Zigong's artisans, welder and electrician Hong Jun Deng, has been helping to build a 196-foot-long dragon that stretches along the oak-lined drive that leads to the main house at Magnolia. 

Deng has built dragons in 10 different countries over his years with the lantern group, but Magnolia's will be the largest he's ever made, Deng said through an interpreter.

When it's complete, about 26,600 plates will cover the dragon's body as scales. Each plate was carefully attached to the dragon's body with thread. 

In all, a team of 26 Chinese artisans have been working diligently at Magnolia for over a month. Another few weeks of work is left before the festival opens on Nov. 15.

The display will stay through mid-March. When it's over, each lantern will be completely disassembled, the lantern group representatives said, and they'll start designing all-new displays for next year. 

Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and employment. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter, which is published twice a week. Before moving to Charleston, her byline appeared in The Boston Globe.

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