Magnolia Plantation

November 15 -
March 15


Behind the Scenes Stories from Lights of Magnolia


Lights of Magnolia DragonYong Huang (right) and team
Lights of Magnolia DragonBending and welding steel

The art of bending steel

Yong Huang didn't follow a straight line to a career as a metal sculptor who builds Chinese lanterns. Instead, he took a route that is just as winding as the curved metal skeletons inside a colorful lighted lantern that glows in the dark.

Huang started his career as an engineer maintaining and repairing a fabricating machine in a factory. Then he built houses. Twelve years ago, he made his first lantern. "I was born in lantern country," he said, referring to China's ancient lantern tradition. "It is in my blood."

Huang and his two apprentices are part of the crew of artisans at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. They are building Lights of Magnolia: Reflections of a Cultural Exchange. It will open Nov. 15 and close March 15, 2020. Magnolia has partnered with Zigong to present the lantern festival, a fusion of historic Chinese cultural symbols and images that represent the flora and fauna of Magnolia.

Constructing a house and bending steel to make lanterns share few similarities, he said, speaking through an interpreter. Straight lines are the imperative for home construction. Transforming a two-dimensional drawing into a three-dimensional metal object, while understanding its relationship to its surroundings, makes building lanterns much more complicated, he explained.

Because of that, some of Huang's lanterns would be too massive for the intimate garden setting at Magnolia, he said as his voice mixed with the hum of a gasoline-powered electric generator. Huang and crew recently worked on a lantern called "The Cake" that will be displayed in Magnolia's Summer Garden.

Unlike some of his colleagues, Huang is the first generation of his family in the lantern industry. Currently, his wife and his brother are in the business, too. Will his 11-year-old daughter join them? "I will let her choose her path in the future," he said.

Like his Zigong colleagues, Huang's work clothes are matching blue denim jackets and pants. But he is easy to spot with his bright red welding shield, a fashion statement that protects his eyes from the blazing glow of a welder's rod. "I see myself as an artist," he said. As such his shield, a piece of carboard wrapped in red silk, is not as suffocating as the kind bought in the store.

Before Lights of Magnolia is lit in mid-November, Huang will return to Zigong where numerous projects are waiting for him in advance of the Chinese New Year that starts Jan. 25, 2020.


Lights of Magnolia's Dragons Take Shape

Lights of Magnolia Dragon200 foot dragon takes shape
US Botanic GardenQilins

Hong Jun Deng went from selling chinaware in 1996 for a government-run company in Zigong, China, to using them to make dragons for Chinese lantern festivals around the world.

Deng had been asked to design a dragon for his company's contribution to a local lantern festival. Soon Deng's potential as a lantern designer was recognized, and he moved from selling chinaware to using them in dragon designs. Since then he has built dragons in 10 countries in Asia, Europe and the United States.

Deng and his assistant Huakai Wu are among 26 artisans at Magnolia who are building the lighted dragon displays for a Chinese lantern festival - Lights of Magnolia: Reflections of a Cultural Exchange - that will open Nov. 15 and close March 15, 2020. Magnolia has partnered with the Zigong Lantern Group in China to present the lantern festival, a fusion of historic Chinese cultural symbols and images that represent the flora and fauna of Magnolia.

Zigong's lantern display is the company's first partnership at a public garden in the United States. Zigong asked Magnolia, America's oldest garden, to join it in this partnership.

Deng's dragon at Magnolia, he said through an interpreter, "is really the biggest dragon I have ever made." The dragon's tail stretches 200 feet along the oak-lined entrance to Magnolia. Its head towers 45 feet into the moss-draped trees. The dragon's scales are made of 26,000 porcelain plates. Deng and Wu carefully attached each plate on the dragon's body with thread.

Before the Chinese artisans arrived at Magnolia last month, Deng was part of a three-person team that met for a week to design Magnolia's dragon.

Deng is a welder and electrician whose combined skills are also on display in the four "qilins" placed near Magnolia's main house. Each qilin is covered with tiny colorful bottles. The quilin is a mythical beast that symbolizes good luck and prosperity.

Two of Deng's sons also build dragons and other lantern displays. One of his sons is currently in England building a giant tea cup. Another is in France erecting an elephant.

Deng will leave Charleston before the lanterns are lit and the festival is opened to the public. Although he's home sick, he enjoys traveling. "I've gotten used to traveling to have different experiences and chat with people and learn about other cultures."


Lights of Magnolia

From fashion to silk-covered steel

Rong Gui's family can boast of having at least five generations of silk workers in the Chinese lantern industry, a cultural tradition dating back more than 2,000 years.

But Gui's career didn’t follow the same path as her ancestors. Instead she studied fashion design in college then worked for 10 years as a tailor in a clothing factory that made garments for China's domestic market.

Her family never needled her to switch from fashion design to being a lantern silk worker. Eventually, however, the allure of travel drew her into the fold of the Zigong Lantern Group in China.

Gui leads a team of four silk workers who are part of the crew of artisans at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. They are building Lights of Magnolia: Reflections of a Cultural Exchange. It will open Nov. 15 and close March 15, 2020. Magnolia has partnered with Zigong to present the lantern festival, a fusion of historic Chinese cultural symbols and images that represent the flora and fauna of Magnolia.

Gui became concerned that if she continued in the factory-based garment business in her hometown of Zigong in southwest China she'd miss the travel opportunities the lantern industry affords. She joined the Zigong Lantern Group in 2006 and since then she's worked in Europe, Asia and numerous times in the United States. In 2012, she was part of the Zigong crew that installed in Dallas the company's first lantern display in America.

Speaking through an interpreter, Gui said, "I opened my mind and heart to travel. If I didn't do that all I would know is my small city." Zigong has a population of 2.6 million people in a country of slightly more than one billion people.

More than 10 members of her family travel the world installing lanterns for the Zigong Lantern Group. Her son is an electrician currently working with a Zigong crew in Belgium.

There are similarities, she said, between making dresses and covering steel rods with silk to make a lantern. Instead of using thread to join pieces of cloth she and her crew coat steel rods with glue to hold the silk in place. "I borrowed a lot of knowledge in the fashion work," she said, adding that silk workers must have an eye for shapes and how to combine brightly colored fabric.

Gui said she does not know where her next assignment will lead her, but it will certainly present opportunities to meet new friends and make new memories.


Lights of Magnolia DragonBo Sun (center) and team
Lights of Magnolia DragonRed Lantern Corridor

The man makes the lanterns glow

The lights along Bo Sun's career path were switched on when as a third-grade student in Zigong, China, he read about Thomas Edison, the American inventor credited with developing the first practical light bulb.

That early exposure to electricity led Sun to a job as an electrician in a cement factory in his hometown of Zigong, China. But he found that the work stifled his creativity so he joined the Zigong Lantern Group, a Chinese company that installs lantern displays around the world.

Sun now leads a team of four electricians installing Lights of Magnolia: Reflections of a Cultural Exchange at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. It will open Nov. 15 and close March 15, 2020. Magnolia has partnered with Zigong to present the lantern festival, a fusion of historic Chinese cultural symbols and images that represent the flora and fauna of Magnolia.

The transition from the cement factory to Chinese lanterns was easy. "I feel like working in the lantern industry is more interesting," Sun, said through an interpreter. "I like lights. I love to work with beautiful lanterns. They light up the darkness and warm up people's hearts."

The incandescent light bulb Edison perfected is not the technology Sun uses today. His crew is installing more than 20,000 LED bulbs. Some are as large as a standard bulb in a table-top lamp while others are fingernail size. LED bulbs are cooler and emit less heat, making them safer to use, Sun said.

The electricians work with the artists to choose the appropriate number of bulbs for each lantern and calculate the power demand, Sun said as he and his crew worked on a large display of lights that will hang over Magnolia's oak-lined entrance. Each of the four displays, he said, consist of 80 small lanterns, transforming the entrance to the "Red Lantern Corridor."

Sun's work at Magnolia adds to his long list of international experiences installing lantern displays in England, South Korea and many U.S. cities. "I love to enjoy the landscape of new places, make friends and have experiences with different cultures," he said.

Most of the Zigong crew will depart Magnolia before Sun turns the lights on. If a blub blows out, he said, don’t worry. "I will stay to the end of the festival, and I have an extra supply."



Lights of Magnolia DragonNi Xiao Ping and Ni Yong Ping

Brothers finding their way from rice fields to lantern displays

Not so long ago, two brothers were growing rice on their family farm near Zigong, China, when they discovered that bending steel to make lantern displays offered a better wage than toiling in the wet boggy soil.

So, they left the farm and their families a year ago to join a group of artisans with the Zigong Lantern Group. Last week, the company assembled 23 lantern displays of "Lights of Magnolia: Reflections of a Cultural Exchange" that opens Nov. 15 for a four-month presentation at America's oldest garden.

For Ni Xiao Ping and his older brother Ni Yong Ping this is their first trip to the United States and their first lantern project with Zigong Lantern Group, which has erected lantern displays around the world.

Through an interpreter, Ni Yong Ping said he is happy to be working with his younger brother, insisting that as youngsters growing up in a family of five children there were no sibling tensions between them. They worked in harmony on the farm that provided just enough income for the family, along with a yield of rice to feed the family.

Two of the brothers' sisters work in the lantern industry as well. They do the silk work like the four women who applied the silk to the lanterns at Magnolia. Their younger brother works in a factory in their hometown of Zigong. A younger sister lives at home with their father on the rice farm. Their mother has passed away.

Although growing rice is backbreaking work the brothers miss rice farming, a family tradition. Nevertheless, when the Zigong crew leaves Charleston this week they will return to Sichuan Province to await the next lucrative lantern assignment.






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