HALES CORNERS — The ferns, hostas, primrose, daylily and knockout roses have long been the staples of Boerner Botanical Gardens.
The 50 acres of curated foliage is part of the 650-acre Whitnall Park that includes a golf course, nature center, woodlands, picnic areas, walking trails and stone structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
But for the second consecutive fall, the Milwaukee County-owned oasis is home to pandas, dragons, terracotta warriors, elephants and 11-foot-tall swans. And just like last year, thousands are flocking to Boerner to immerse themselves in the Chinese culture, take selfies and plod garden paths lined with hundreds of illuminated lanterns in varying forms and sizes and constructed by Chinese artisans.
China Lights opened last weekend and will run through Oct. 22. The 10 acres of displays within Boerner are closed on Mondays but organizers are hoping to replicate last year’s success in which more than 100,000 people purchased tickets for the night-time event. In 2016, officials were hoping to cover costs by attracting between 25,000 and 30,000 people. This year, $250,000 worth of tickets have been sold in advance and topping 100,000 visitors is likely doable again.
“It’s such an immersion into the culture and such a color explosion,” said Shirley Walczak, the sleep-deprived director of Boerner. “It’s for all senses. It transports you to another time away from Milwaukee. It’s just peaceful.”
Chinese music plays over the sound system, stages showcase dancers, the martial arts and face changers while a marketplace includes other artists who do miniature engraving, painting inside small glass bottles and aluminum welding. Food stands offer crab rangoon, garlic noodles, pork egg rolls and sake, although, this being Wisconsin, one stand was dedicated to deep-fried cheese curds, grilled cheese sandwiches and giant chocolate chip cookies.
But the lights are the draw. And once the sun begins to dip beyond the horizon, the gardens take on a whole new look and feel as lights stand out and the crowd begins to grow.
Inge Yuwono, 36, lives in Pewaukee and had her 1-year-old daughter, Sophie, in a back pack. Yuwono grew up in Indonesia and moved to the U.S. 18 years ago but her family is of Chinese descent. Lanterns have always been a part of her family’s heritage.
“People who have never been to China, or been to Asia in general, can experience what it’s all about,” Yuwono said when asked about the lanterns being brought to Wisconsin. “Every single one of these means something. There’s a lot of symbolism in the culture that you don’t see here every day.”
The highlights include a 200-foot-long dragon, a Chinese Zodiac tunnel, parts of the Terracotta Army, a wall of pandas and massive sea world display that includes jelly fish. There are dinosaurs, giant mushrooms and frogs and polychrome elephants. A more than 300-foot-long boardwalk through the woods and wetlands is illuminated by scores of hanging lanterns above, while 60,000 porcelain bowls, bottles, cups, plates and spoons were used to create a nearly 40-foot-tall porcelain tower near the entrance gate of the gardens.
The tradition of lighting lanterns began centuries ago in China with festivals that can be traced back to the beginning of the Eastern Han Dynasty. The modern-day China Lights tour is part of China’s five-year economic plan to showcase Chinese culture around the world. In 2015, the Sichuan Provincial Department of Commerce developed a campaign with the goal of holding 100 lantern shows in 100 cities worldwide. The province is home to Zigong City, where there are 380 lantern companies that employ 80,000 artisans.
This year’s event in Hales Corners has been improved upon with better parking arrangements, tastier food and a one-way route on the walking paths that has helped ease congestion. The event sort of has the feel of the Holiday Fantasy in Lights at Olin Park in Madison, only it’s on foot and sans snowmen, candy canes and Christmas music, and the lanterns are more intricate.
About 40 Chinese artisans spent about six weeks building the structures at Boerner, 95 percent of which are different from last year’s event.
Ralph Garrity of Festival Productions Inc. is the promoter of the festival and has been involved with Summerfest for more than 30 years, the Olympics, the 100th Anniversary of Harley-Davidson and Bastille Days.
He carries two constantly squawking walkie-talkies and a cellphone, and is completely sold on China Lights, something he first saw a few years ago in Seattle.
“I got there at noon and there was nobody there, of course then I figured out it was a night show,” Garrity said. “I’ve worked in a lot of shows and this doesn’t happen very often, a huge hit. We just wanted to break even last year; instead, we sold 105,000 tickets.”
Botanical gardens are continually looking for ways to attract new visitors.
In Madison, Olbrich Botanical Gardens is hosting through Oct. 28, GLEAM, a light display event that features local, national and international artists who have created light-based installations in the outdoor gardens and the Bolz Conservatory. The displays are open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Walczak, who grew up on a Marathon County dairy farm near Colby, and has been at Boerner for 16 years, has been working long days and nights and has been up before sunrise promoting the China Lights event on television morning shows in Milwaukee, Chicago and, last Wednesday, in Madison. The goal is to draw visitors from around Wisconsin and northern Illinois while at the same time promoting the gardens named after Alfred Boerner, who designed the gardens after being appointed in 1927 as Milwaukee County’s landscape architect.
The event is proving popular with families who have adopted children from China, the state’s large Hmong population and the Germans, Norwegians and other Wisconsinites with European heritage who have an interest in expanding their world view and taking in a stunning display of light on what are finally crisp fall evenings.
“This is something that Milwaukee and the Midwest has not seen. It’s just so different from anything else,” Walczak said. “It just transforms the gardens and takes you away.”