Spreading our light

This story was originally published in the January 5, 2018 issue of The Slant. Want Asian American news, media and culture in your inbox every week? Subscribe here.

There’s a new trend spreading among Parks and Recreation departments across the country. In order to drum up tourism, mid-sized cities are starting to host Chinese lantern festivals in city centers and public venues.

A quick search turns up dozens of festivals in the last few months and even cities without a large Chinese-American population, like Tulsa, Oklahoma and Columbus, Ohio are getting in on the action. And it seems to be working! (Which isn’t surprising, really; they’re super instagrammable).

But the lanterns aren’t just a pretty spectacle, and treating them like that’s how you end up with the Color Run: a 5k race where participants throw powdered dyes in a vivid example of cultural appropriation at its worst. Based on Holi traditions, the Color Run’s exactly how to whitewash all the significance out of a beloved tradition.

Let’s look on the bright side

Tourism dollars and entertainment value may be a big factor, but these festivals seem to be doing a good job highlighting their cultural roots and educating the public on the legends and myths associated with the lanterns. They also often feature performances by local Chinese cultural groups, food, crafts and more.

And it seems that Chinese production company Tianyu Arts and Culture is at least partially responsible for (or at least brilliantly capitalizing on) the trend. Tianyu hosts over a dozen of these festivals globally, and seems to use lanterns made by Chinese artists, letting them profit.

The takeaway? That cultural celebrations don’t obscure their origins, and that the culture that created something is present, participating and profiting.

Jessica Yi, editor, who thinks you’re luminous

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