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Feast of Lanterns

Fireworks display at the Feast of Lanterns in Pacific Grove, California.
Fireworks display at the Feast of Lanterns in Pacific Grove, California.
Feast of Lanterns in Pacific Grove

Each July in Pacific Grove, the event of the Feast of Lanterns takes place and brings the community together. Tourists can enjoy fireworks, and a touch of the exotic from days gone by. This year the festivities take place July 23 through July 27, 2014.

The festival began with the village of Chinese fishermen, women and children who had brought their junks from Canton, China and took up abalone fishing. But in 1906, there was a fire that destroyed the village, and the fishermen were not allowed to rebuild it. After the fire, the festival did not commence again until 1957.

When the festival did make a come back, it was no longer a Chinese cultural event, but rather a European version, with Queens and Princesses all having European surnames. In a way, the tradition was hijacked from the Chinese after the fire, which was in line with the sentiment for Chinese immigration from 1882 through 1943. The Chinese Exclusion Act was replaced with fairer limits and quotas based on each foreign country, so that anti-Chinese sentiment would no longer be the norm.

The tale of the Festival of Lanterns goes like this:

Long ago in far off Cathay, a land now called China, there lived during the reign of Emperors a wealthy Mandarin named T'so Ling. His land holdings were vast and fertile, and his treasures beyond counting. His palace was built of fine woods and rich lacquers with a roof of blue tile that gleamed in the sun, and a handmade fence that ran below the palace. Behind the palace grew an orange tree, and beside the palace ran a river with a graceful willow that gave shade in the heat of the day.

Of all T'so Ling's possessions, his beautiful Princess daughters with their jewel names were his greatest joy. The Mandarin delighted most in his eldest daughter, Koong-se, who he named Topaz, so named for the golden lights that twinkled from her eyes. Topaz passed her days in a summerhouse that leaned over the rippling water, where she did elegant embroidery on silk while listening to tales of old Cathay as told by her faithful nurse, Chun Soy.

T'so Ling thought Topaz so lovely that he wished to crown her as Queen. A coronation ceremony was planned, and all the princes, potentates, maharajahs and lords of the realm were invited to attend the coronation. One of the old Mandarins brought a chest of gold so impressive that T'so Ling thought this rich man would make a fine husband for his daughter Topaz. T'so Ling made plans to combine the coronation with a marriage feast.

Topaz heard this news and became quite despondent, for she had fallen in love with a poor, young scholar called Chang. Hearing of this, T'so Ling forbade his daughter to marry Chang. Topaz wandered off into the dark to drown herself. T'so Ling alerted the villagers to search for Topaz with lighted boats and lanterns. During the search Topaz and Chang reunited. In a final burst of lights, Topaz and Chang were illuminated as they changed into Monarch butterflies and escaped into the sky.

The pageant, which takes place on the last night of the Festival, tells the story in pantomime and ends with a burst of fireworks overhead as the lovers are seen for a brief moment departing in the guise of Monarch butterflies.

Every year the Pacific Grove community selects a Queen (Topaz) and other gem named Princesses. All of the local residents decorate their homes with lanterns and have a local contest to judge the best decorated house.

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