Chapel Hill – Every table to decorate lanterns was jam-packed on Saturday at the Light Up Festival, but Ying Zhao and her 3-year-old son, Jayden Ren, managed to find a spot.
With Jayden in her lap, Zhao helped him put paper cut-outs on a lantern. “Are you enjoying this, Jayden?” she asked, and he nodded. She turned and smiled. “He means yes,” she said. “I know there’s a lantern tradition. We just came out because it sounded like something fun to do.”
This was Light Up’s first year, and the event, which took place at University Place, drew far more people than organizers expected. By the looks of it, thousands of people had come through the mall and decorated lanterns, played games, watched performers, and eaten foods from the many vendors. Huina Chen, head of the organizers of the event, estimated 10,000 people attended.
Chen is the vice-chairwoman of the PTA at the Chinese School of Chapel Hill, which hosted the event. She said the idea for the event actually came from Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger and Councilwoman Jessica Anderson, who approached the school last year.
The idea for the event to focus on lanterns, instead of something more traditional for the Chinese New Year, came down to the organizers. Lanterns aren’t usually a major feature of the holiday.
“We wanted to find a theme that is appreciated by all cultures,” said Chen. “The lanterns are decorated with imagination, and we invited the community to come create with us. We wanted people to learn about Chinese culture, and we wanted it to include everybody and it would be a shared celebration.”
There were also lanterns that had been decorated by artists up for auction at the event, with the proceeds going to four public schools.
Main photo: Caibo Liu, left, and Sarauna Wei wear panda hats as they decorate lanterns.
For some attendees, the idea was right on the mark. Rose Ji, of West Cary, made a Pikachu lantern and said she enjoyed the event because the decoration has more involvement. “Usually, the events are performance-based. Here, you’re actually doing handcraft,” she said. “When I was young, I had a rabbit lantern. I like the creation, the design.”
The event filled University Place with throngs of people. Children wearing dragon and panda hats were carefully led through the crowds by their parents. There was a popular table to decorate and eat cupcakes. An older couple whose grandson is learning Chinese in college waited patiently for the end-of-event parade to begin.
Two friends wearing panda hats sat down to decorate their lanterns together. Sarauna Wei, 16, sitting alongside Caibo Liu, 16, said it made her feel more in touch with Chinese culture. Wei, of the Karen ethnicity from Thailand, said her culture celebrates the Lunar New Year as well.
The Lunar New Year, which was on Saturday this year, is the biggest celebration of the year in Asia. 2017 is the Year of the Rooster in the Chinese calendar.