The crowd of 200,000 people explodes as the 30-foot-tall dragon bursts to life. We’re gathered in the Lukang Sports Park in a small port town in central Taiwan for the Grand Opening ceremony of the Taiwan Lantern Festival, a tradition that dates back hundreds of years but that has gotten increasingly more popular with tourists since its reinvigoration over the past decade. Many Westerners have seen photos of the Sky Lantern Festival—which takes place on the same day as the opening in the rural village of Shifen outside of Taipei—where event organizers release some 2,000 traditional lanterns into the night sky. But that’s just one event of the entire Lantern Festival, which runs from February 6 through February 19 this year. There’s also the Beehive Rocket Festival in southern Taiwan, where participants shoot rockets loaded with firecrackers into the air to scare off evil spirits, and, my favorite, the Bombing of Master Han Dan, where young men show off their bravery by being carried around in a sedan chair while people in the crowd hurl lit strands of firecrackers at them. (It’s unclear if anyone gets hurt in this process.)
But here in Lukang, the streets are packed for what many see as the main event. Gauze lanterns built by schoolchildren line the streets, shaped into a variety of characters, from the cast of SpongeBob Squarepants to dragons scaling the walls of the famous Taipei 101 skyscraper. Street vendors sell squid on a stick, pork dumplings, or stinky tofu on every block, and parades of teenagers carrying dragon banners fill crowded streets. At night, the President of Taiwan addresses the crowd after two hours of performances by taiko drummers, traditional dancers, and, inexplicably, a cast of Walt Disney characters. Then the sky goes dark, the crowd is silenced, and the 30-foot dragon, whose daytime appearance started in translucent silver then burst into color, changing from green to orange to pink to red, with steaming coming out of his nose and his head turning in a lifelike precision. This is, after all, the Year of the Dragon, when money, power, and prosperity are supposed to be favored. Sure, it might lack the quaint beauty of the Sky Lanterns, but it seems a fitting celebration for such a powerful beast.
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