At the end of September last year, Mary Ann Johnson received an email from Justin Corsa, North America director of China Lantern International. Corsa was an admirer of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens’s big public garden, and wanted the historic site’s operations manager to consider an unusual proposal.
At first, Johnson assumed Corsa was talking about installing those common paper lanterns, typically red in color and featuring Chinese characters. But then she clicked on the link embedded in the email message.
“It was instant amazement,” she said.
Johnson quickly shared the proposal (and the link) with her colleagues and ran through the logistics in her head. Was this even possible? They all concluded: Yes, it was possible. The board soon embraced the idea.
This would be, first and foremost, a cultural exchange, the result of a partnership between the two organizations. Both would invest significant funds in the project, ultimately reaching an anticipated $1 million, then share the proceeds.
The "Lights of Magnolia" installation would include Chinese figures, including dragons and foo dogs, but also figures that represented the flora and fauna of Magnolia Plantation, such as peacocks and camellias.
The figures are large and colorful, and require a big generator to provide enough power to light them up. They are positioned on several acres of the property, organized so that visitors can stroll through the ambitious display and see everything. Some of the figures are meant especially to appeal to children.
The centerpiece of the installation is the 200-foot-long dragon, made with more than 26,000 porcelain dinner plates held in place with thread.
John Drayton Hastie Jr., one of Magnolia’s owners, said he hopes the project will appeal especially to young people.
“The kids will come out and see this and be interested in learning more about China,” he said. “I want Americans to know more about China; America and China is where it’s at.”
A ribbon-cutting event held Tuesday drew representatives of several local chambers of commerce, some of the Chinese artisans responsible for the installation as well as leaders of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens and Zigong Lantern Group, which owns China Lantern International.
Joy Lim, Zigong’s international project supervisor, said her company employs 200 permanent staff and hires freelance designers and artisans with high-tech expertise. A crew of dozens have been busy setting things up at Magnolia for the past month.
She said typical materials used to construct the figures include colored glass bottles, plates, metal pieces and strings of lights. Some of the company’s other installations include an interactive component: for example, clap and flower petals open, talk to an animal and watch it spring to life, pass by a display and trigger a visual effect such as rippling water.
The Magnolia display was meant “to celebrate hope, love and enlightened moments in your life,” she told the gathering.
Corsa said his company is overseeing four projects simultaneously in the U.S., with another, in Boston, to be added next year. The Charleston project required nine months of onsite meetings, lots of coordination and materials shipped overseas in a dozen 40-foot containers.
“It was a true test of strength,” he said.
Richard Yang, president of the Carolinas Chinese Chamber of Commerce, noted that a display celebrating cultural exchange would likely draw many of the 80,000 Chinese living in North and South Carolina.
The "Lights of Magnolia" exhibition, best viewed after dark, will be open to the public through March 15. For more information, and to purchase tickets, go to www.magnoliaplantation.com/chinese_lantern_festival_charleston.html.