DallasNews.com – Before the giant dragon boat floated the lagoon in Fair Park, before pandas and mythical creatures adorned the grounds for this year’s Chinese Lantern Festival, there was the big shady tent in the parking lot.
Day after day, a cluster of Chinese artists gathered there, toiling amid scraps of metal, empty cigarette cartons and sparkling streamers bunched up like gold pompoms.
“Welcome to our lantern factory,” they liked to say.
These artists, who traveled from China to design and construct hundreds of lanterns, are a big part of what makes the Chinese Lantern Festival possible. The festival will debut for the second time at the State Fair of Texas this weekend.
The 45 or so artists, employed by the festival for the past few weeks, have formed their own community here. They work together seven days a week, from dawn to dusk, using skills passed on through the generations. On breaks, they eat authentic Chinese meals together. And at night, they return together to apartments in Old East Dallas, where they like to swim in the pool or play Mahjong.
It’s long, tiresome work — often in the heat of a lingering Texas summer. But they do it together — as a community — so that the shimmering, colorful lanterns they create can serve as a vehicle between Chinese and American cultures.
“We want the American people, the Texas people to know about our culture,” said Merv (Yuping) Tan, who works as a translator for the artists.
The 52-foot porcelain pagoda made of dinnerware was inspired by a Buddhist temple. Animal figurines reflect the identity of the artists’ hometown of Zigong, an inland city that — aside from lanterns — is known for its pandas and dinosaur fossils. And, of course, there’s the dragon boat on the lagoon, which historically represents the Chinese emperor.
But it’s not just about Chinese culture.
Last year at the State Fair, Tan got a taste of American cuisine: funnel cake dusted with powdered sugar and an impossibly large fried turkey leg. Tan, who often wears a straw hat and whom the festival’s public relations team calls their “Chinese Texan,” even had a Thanksgiving dinner at Cracker Barrel.
“When I go back to China, I always miss life here,” said Tan, 23. “People here are very friendly, even the strangers.”
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