Just imagine a child’s look of amazement as they stare in wonder at incredible structures, some up to six feet tall: playful panda bears, Chinese dragons, giant poppies and intricate Chinese lanterns, each illuminated with tens of thousands of bright lights.
That’s what visitors will see at a Chinese art installation that will put Gilroy Gardens on the international map for the next four months, attracting tourists from near and far to experience a historic art show that has only appeared in a handful of venues around the world.
Called “Lumination: Chinese Culture Celebrated in a Whole New Light,” it’s an extraordinary light display representing more than 2,000 years of Chinese history and culture, shown with brightly lit sculptures of iconic structures such as the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, and Terracotta Warriors, each artistically woven into the park’s 26 acres of natural beauty.
“You have the lanterns, incredible displays of Chinese mythology, and architecture, spectacular enormous displays illuminated at night, and then you have Chinese acrobats performing every night,” says Glenn Dobbin, managing partner for Toronto-based DDM Entertainment & Events, Inc., who helped bring the program here.
“And you have traditional Chinese craftsman, so you’ll see these arts and crafts that you’ve likely never seen.”
Intricate, handmade objects composed of countless individual pieces, including traditional handcrafted silk lanterns, porcelain china plates and tiny glass bottles filled with colored water, are a commanding vision by day.
But at night, they are simply breathtaking, as literally millions of LED bulbs illuminate over 30 displays of Chinese culture, including the mythical qilin, an icon of the Qin and Qing dynasties that resembles the Western unicorn.
The Chinese theme extends throughout the lushly landscaped 536-acre park, featuring an authentic Chinese marketplace. There will be acrobats, performers, and, yes, Chinese food.
Gilroy Gardens was originally a commercial plant nursery and a vacation spot for employees of Nob Hill Foods markets. It was founded by Nob Hill owners Michael and Claudia Bonfante, who built it after selling the chain. It opened to the public in 2001 with 19 rides and six gardens.
In 2008 the city of Gilroy took it over. It now has a water park and playgrounds, but its main attraction is the luxurious verdant gardens, forests and walking trails, making it especially well suited for the night events. Its Christmas lights festival began in 2004.
Fifty Chinese artisans have worked seven days a week for six weeks to assemble “Lumination.” They are staying in homes and empty offices at the park, with comforts of home including Internet connections, a laundromat and a giant kitchen.
“They cook their own food, they take care of themselves,” says Thomas Kuo, a translator.
“They all are enjoying their stay. Sometimes they work three hours a day, and sometimes they have to work eight hours a day, but they make sure that the workers get their rest.”
The materials come in huge shipping containers.
Among those who participated in the show’s assembly phase, Hou Ping Lu, 68, has worked in 10 different countries as an artist. His focus is on lanterns, which he has crafted for 50 years. His favorite piece, the Nine Heaven Pagoda, is a structure that appears to stretch into the sky.
This display can’t be missed, since it’s the first one seen on entering the park.
Hou has been traveling for his art since 1995 and heads to Singapore next. It’s his way of life, he says.
“My wife doesn’t travel with me,” he says. “Earning money is a man’s thing. I will send money back home and my wife will relax.”
He’s visited San Francisco, seen the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown and Stanford University, but the other workers haven’t been there, says Hou.
These artisans have added a level of culture to Gilroy that should bring in more visitors from San Francisco, says Barb Granter, general manager of Gilroy Gardens. While the park does draw people from 100 miles away, it has far more visitors from Los Gatos than the north parts of the Bay Area. She thinks “Lumination” will change that.
“It’s about a special event that’s a Chinese festival, coming to view the sculptures, and be immersed in Chinese culture,” says Granter.
“Lumination” began its journey to Gilroy Gardens more than two years ago when the park was looking for a way to extend its number of operating days and reach a new audience.
“We had been actively looking for something that would allow us to do an evening event,” says Granter. “We would need a good 2,000-3,000 people to keep it open at night.”
When Toronto-based Dobbin first visited Bonfante Gardens back in 2006, he realized he’d discovered the perfect venue for an authentic Chinese lantern festival.
“I’m the governor of the Chinese Cultural Center in Toronto,” he says. “This is the biggest Chinese cultural center in the West, so Chinese culture became a part of my life.”
In other venues, including Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, City Park in New Orleans and Fair Park in Dallas, the exhibit has brought as many as 250,000 visitors.
“This is the most beautiful natural setting we’ve ever worked in, the setting, the background, it’s almost like this park was built for a lantern festival. I think it’s gorgeous,” says Dobbin.
Brad Kava contributed to this article. ‘Lumination’ runs July 16-Nov. 27, 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Tickets are $30, or $20 when buying four or more. Parking is $14. Save $5 by buying online. Daytime park admission is $34 online. For additional information go to luminationgilroy.org/index.
This is the most beautiful natural setting we’ve ever worked in, the setting, the background, it’s almost like this park was built for a lantern festival. I think it’s gorgeous.