The long dark winter nights in London are being brightened up this year by a spectacular display combining traditional Chinese lantern-making techniques with cutting-edge technology for an interactive outdoor experience thought to be the biggest commercial Chinese cultural event in the United Kingdom.
After a hugely successful six-week stint in Manchester’s Heaton Park, the biggest municipal park in Europe, Lightopia is enjoying a six-week run in the grounds of Chiswick House in West London, launched to coincide with Chinese New Year. The theme of the event is Harmony, and organizers hope it will prove as a big success in London as it did in Manchester.
“We aim to cross boundaries, and bring something new to a traditional British Christmas — I was hoping to marry a Chinese lantern with a Christmas tree!,” Lightopia’s creator, Ian Xiang, said.
“Growing up in Sichuan, I went to these kind of events all the time, but I’ve been living in the UK for almost 20 years now and realized there was nothing like them here, which gave me the idea.”
Thousands of handmade silk pieces used in Lightopia — one exhibit, the field of roses, features 70,000 individual flowers — were made in China and shipped over, as part of a year-long planning process. “We spent 2019 preparing for this winter, planning and designing pieces from March onwards, going into production in July and getting things shipped over by the end of October,” he explained.
“We supplied a few lanterns for Diwali celebrations in Edinburgh, but the proper Lightopia debut was in Manchester, near the end of November. Heaton Park has a huge lake, which we used for the finale, a waterscreen hologram projection. Over the course of six weeks, we had over 110,000 visitors.”
The feedback has been hugely positive, and visitors might be even more appreciative if they knew the amount of effort that went into the displays.
“We had over 200 people in China working for over two months to manufacture all the pieces you see in the display, and then more than 30 people came over to work on site with local teams for a month, setting it up. It was quite a large operation, and of course there was a language barrier and people work differently, but we managed it and got it open on time. It’s been a real success.”
Having caught the pre-Christmas commercial wave in Manchester, it is no coincidence that the London run coincides with Chinese New Year, an event that is growing in popularity and profile in the UK every year, but as Xiang points out, it is not simply a case of packing up the show in one city, moving on and setting up in another.
“A lot of elements are the same but you have to consider things like geography — Manchester had the lake, which Chiswick doesn’t, so instead we do projections on Chiswick House, which requires some change and redesigning. Also, there were elements of the Manchester display that were Christmas-themed,” he explained.
New Year celebrations traditionally mean fireworks, but in recent times, there have been questions raised about air pollution and environmental damage — another reason why Lightopia has been so well received.
“It’s interesting how many comments on social media say this is better than fireworks and should replace them — a lot of people now prefer our lanterns and illuminations and say it’s more spectacular,” he explained.
And in future that could be the case, because appropriately enough for a celebration of light, the outlook looks bright. “It’s hard to find suitable-sized venues for a display like this, but we have five-year contracts in place with Manchester and London, and we’ve already had talks with other places, like country houses and zoos, about doing things for them too, so hopefully there might be more next year, maybe even more than one running at the same time,” he said.
A circuit of the Lightopia experience takes around 90 minutes, with an entertainment marquee along the way, featuring local musicians, Chinese acrobatic performances and also Chinese artists exhibiting their intangible cultural heritage paintings. Next year, the tent could even feature a full-scale circus. “That’s something people like that maybe we can explore for the future,” Xiang added.
However next winter’s Lightopia display ends up looking, the current incarnation has already brightened up the winter nights for tens of thousands of people many thousands of miles away from China, and as far as Xiang is concerned, that is something of which everyone associated with Lightopia should be very proud.
“As a Chinese person living in the UK, it makes me really happy that I’ve brought something from my home town which has proved so popular with so many people here at a special time of year,” he said. “It makes me very happy to see how much people have liked it. As organizers we should be very proud.”