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Authentic Chinese lanterns to light up St. Louis once again

A popular attraction that debuted in St. Louis a few years ago has returned. 


On Saturday night, the Missouri Botanical Garden will present the grand opening of Lantern Festival: Magic Reimagined, a display of 22 sets of Chinese lanterns constructed out of steel and silk and illuminated from the inside. 



It’s extremely uncommon to see an authentic Chinese lantern festival outside of Asia, but this will be the Missouri Botanical Garden’s second production of one. The garden staged its first lantern festival in 2012 as a onetime event and celebration of the completion of Flora of China, a 25 year project documenting China’s wild plants that was completed in cooperation with gardens in China.


This year’s festival celebrates the ongoing relationship the Missouri Botanical Garden maintains with gardens in China to conduct botanical research and preserve endangered plants. But perhaps the biggest reason the festival is back, is popular demand.


“Ever since 2012, we’ve had people begging us to bring it back. Literally every year we get phone call after phone call, 'are you going to have lanterns again? Are you going to bring the lanterns back this year?’ It was so successful that we thought we have to do it again,” Lynn Kerkemeyer told “Cityscape” producer Katie Cook.


Kerkemeyer is the senior events and exhibitions coordinator at the garden.

Yu Chin Qian applies glue and silk to finish the large wheel.
Credit Katie Cook / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Chinese worker Yu Chin Qian applies glue and silk to finish the large wheel.




One thing that stands out about the festival is its large scale. And, aside from the popular pandas from 2012, this year’s festival will have no repeat lanterns.


“The tallest lantern that we have is 33 feet tall, so they’re three to five stories tall, some of them. They are steel infrastructure that are covered in colorful silk, with light illuminating from the inside … most of them are silk covered but there are also some special traditional techniques that are used during their lantern festivals. They have medicine bottles filled with colored water and it looks like jewelry, there are also sets that are covered in hand-tied porcelain which is a traditional art form in China,” Kerkemeyer said. 


The design of the lanterns is a collaboration between the garden and the Chinese lantern company LanternFest. It takes countless hours to determine everything from logistical details such as placement and electrical requirements, to creative details such as what stories each set of lanterns will tell.

Spencer Tan, founder of LanternFest, at the 2012 Chinese Lantern Festival at the Missouri Botanical Garden
Credit (Provided by the Missouri Botanical Garden)
Spencer Tan, founder of LanternFest, at the 2012 Chinese Lantern Festival at the Missouri Botanical Garden


“The designs themselves really represent what the garden wants to talk about. So, this time around, we’re more plant focused. For instance, one of the sets is flower fairies, that is part of the mythology of China where there are fairies that take care of the earth and all of its beautiful flowers, and so we depict that myth because we’re a garden and we’re all about flowers too. We also are choosing images from the cities that have these wonderful gardens we’re partnering with, like Yunnan province, Beijing, Nanjing.” 


This year 28 artisans from China traveled to St. Louis to construct and assemble the lanterns. Some of the work is done ahead of time in China before the pieces are shipped, but there is still about two months of work to do on site. 


During a walking tour of the garden last month, Spencer Tan, founder of LanternFest, showed the process of the skinners, the women who stretch and apply silk over lanterns. They evenly spread glue around the structure and then tear the pieces of silk to fit. 


“This is the more difficult part, because these will be different colors,” he explained, pointing to groups of small circles on a large steel wheel covered in gold silk.


“And the way we identify, because this is everything in a rush, this is the indication. If we want this to be green color we’re gonna take this green color [silk] and we tie it here. So the skinner will know this is green color, so we tie a yellow [silk] here, then she’ll know that this is yellow,” Tan said.


Yu Chin Qian is one of the Chinese skinners. Tan translated her answer when she was asked about what she enjoys about the work.


“She said after when she finishes the work and it turns out to be really beautiful, and a lot of people say ‘wow,’ this satisfies her a lot,” Tan said.  


The Chinese Lantern Festival will be on display through Aug. 23, when the exhibit will be deconstructed and the pieces will be sold to the public.



Lantern Festival: Magic Reimagined


When: May 23-August 23, 2015

Where: Missouri Botanical Garden

More Information


“Cityscape” is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.