A couple of nights ago, Una and I visited Moonlight Forest, a lantern festival currently taking place Wednesday through Sunday nights at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden. Its one of several local winter light festivals happening right now, along with Griffith Park’s LA Zoo Christmas Lights and Holiday Light Festival Train Rides, Descanso Gardens’ Enchanted: Forest of Light, and probably others. Moonlight Forest and Enchanted were the two that most appealed to me and since the latter was sold out, we opted for the former.
Although this is the “holiday season,” there doesn’t seem to be any specific holiday connection with Moonlight Forest. There was a single tree hung hung with round lanterns which I assumed were a nod to Christmas but other than that there were no obvious evocations of Halloween, Diwali, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Saint Nicholas Day, Saint Lucy’s Day, Saturnalia, Yule, the Gregorian New Year, or any other of the season’s holidays.
I’ve seen occasional references to Lunar New Year but that won’t occur until February further from the event’s conclusion than the Mid-Autumn Festival was from its 26 October debut. I initially assumed Moonlight Forest was designed to correspond to the Dōngzhì Festival (冬至) — the Chinese Winter Solstice observation that took place on 22 December — but that seems to have merely been another coincidence as there were no signs that tangyuan had been consumed prior to our visit.
If you’ve never been to the arboretum, you’re really missing out. It’s a 51.4 hectare botanical garden, arboretum, and historic site and one of the real gems of Metro Los Angeles. Prior to its current incarnation, it was owned by the notorious libertine, Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin, who commissioned the construction of several structures which still stand there, most notably a Queen Anne-style residence located on Baldwin Lake. Decades after Baldwin’s death, the state of California and city of Los Angeles jointly purchased 44.9 hectares of Baldwin’s property for the purpose of developing an arboretum. In 1956, it opened to the public.
The arboretum’s plants are grouped by geography into Asian, Australian, Mediterranean, North American, South African, and South American gardens. There’s also the Aquatic Garden, Demonstration Home Gardens, Garden for All Seasons, Herb Gardens, Meadowbrook, Native Oaks, the Palm and Bamboo collection, and the Prehistoric and Jungle Garden. The grounds are also patrolled by a couple hundred peafowl which are descended from an ostentation imported from India by Baldwin and which now serve as a symbol of the community of Arcadia. Not that you can see much of any of that at night and parts of the park are actually fenced off. You will be aware of the trees, however, as you can make out their dimly lit silhouettes, smell them if you’ve got a decent sense of smell, and on sufficiently windy nights — such as the one on which we visited — hear their leaves rustling and branches creaking.
The lanterns of Moonlight Forest are not the sort people might immediately think of when they hear the words “Chinese lanterns” — which calls to mind those collapsible red paper lanterns — although there are those too. These “lanterns” are the large, LED-illuminated structures made of hand-painted fabric stretched over large frames. They may be unfamiliar to those who’ve never visited China, Singapore, or Taiwan — although they’re becoming more popular in the US in recent years. It seems that medium-large sized cities like Cary, Columbus, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Spokane, and Tulsa (of which only Cary has a large percentage of Chinese residents) have recently hosted lantern festivals which have proven quite popular. So far, one company has been responsible for all of them — Tianyu Arts & Culture — an American subsidiary (founded in 2014) of Sichuan Tianzhu Culture Communication Co., Ltd — a Zigong, Sichuan-based company (founded in 1997).
Arcadia is much more Asian than those other lantern festival-hosting cities. In fact, about two thirds of Arcadia’s resident have roots in either Taiwan or China. For that reason, Arcadia is sometimes jokingly referred to “Arcasia.” For Arcadia’s festival, the artists at Tianyu Arts & Culture created new site-specific works including coyotes, California poppies, the extinct California Grizzly, and of course, an enormous peacock. Most of the lanterns, though, depict flowers and animals — both real and mythical — which have no specific connection to the suburb.
There are quite a few displays, though, and signage is in both English and Chinese. Curious about the festival’s attendees, I listened to what languages were being spoken. The most common were, indeed, English and Chinese, although there was quite a bit of Spanish — plus a single instance of Japanese and some Filipino-accented English. I wonder what percentage of attendees were from the San Gabriel Valley — a region which is increasingly — with its night markets, festivals, and open streets events — continues to increase civic engagement by hosting public and quasi-public events.
Prior to visiting, I for some reason imagined attendees quietly appreciating the lanterns as they strolled the arboretum’s grounds. Perhaps this was because Moonlight Forest was the first local festival I attended since returning from Japan. It was hardly a quiet evening stroll, though. This is America, after all, where we seem to fear silence and obliterate it by constantly babbling, cackling loudly, and scolding children with names like “Madison.” Despite my reverse culture shock, I was pleasantly surprised by the size and diversity of the attendees and, of course, the lanterns themselves.
It wasn’t really that cold — 12 ºC — but I’ve lived in Southern California for long enough that even a relatively warm winter night can feel pretty chilly with sufficient wind — and it was very windy. I knew that Una would be more uncomfortable than me and so I wore extra items that I knew I wouldn’t be lending to her including a wool cap and a scarf which I used fashion into something resembling a niqāb. As for me, a couple of Kentucky coffees (minus the whipped cream) was sufficient to restore some color to my face and keep me pleasantly toasty.
There are two bars in the forest — and several food trucks — although none were really serving anything that appealed to me on such a chilly night, offering as they did things like boba, ice cream, and few vegetarian options (although I very nearly ate dandanmian). The participating trucks are BBQ Smokehouse, Boba ni Taco, Cravin Curbside Crab Cakes, Dinas Dumplings, Dreamy Creations, Pickles n’ Peas, Rice Balls of Fire, Sabores de Mexico, Son of a Bun, and Triple Threat Truck.
In addition to the lanterns, there are food trucks, bars, and a stage where audiences are treated to biàn liǎn (a type of Sichuan opera), acrobats, and dancers. I would’ve liked to have seen more but the lanterns were definitely the main attraction and I wanted to make sure that I saw all of them. Most of the reviews for the festival have been highly positive. Inevitably there’ve been a few bad ones — most of which complain that the lanterns are “just some lights.” I suppose the world can be divided into two sorts of people — those those who enjoy things like fireworks displays, Christmas lights, lava lamps, neon signs, lightning bugs, bonfires, and the Golden Wood of Lothlórien — and those dead-inside sorts for whom all of those are “just some lights.”
The festival is almost over — so see it soon. It ends its run on 6 January — which is incidentally Armenian Christmas (Orthodox Christmas is the following day). Tickets cost $20 for children (3-17), $25 for adults (18-61), and $23 for seniors (62-122). Los Angeles Arboretum members get 15% off. Entry times are ticketed for 5:30, 7:00, and 8:00 pm. The event ends at 10:00 pm. In addition to the public restrooms, there are a few porta-potties here and there. It’s completely date-or-family friendly.
By far the biggest headache regarding the festival is getting to and from it. For being a fairly affluent suburb — and one whose residents in many instances come from transit-blessed Taipei — Arcadia is embarrassingly underserved by mass transit and not especially bike friendly. The website Walkscore gives the area around the Arboretum a failing bike score of 37/100 and an even worse walk score of 30/100.
Metro’s Gold Line runs next to the arboretum but the nearest stop, Arcadia Station, is three kilometers from the arboretum’s entrance. The Santa Anita Train Depot, located within the park, opened in 1890 and was moved there in 1968 — but hasn’t been served by a train since 1940. There are two fairly convenient bus options, though, Foothill Transit‘s popular 187 line, which stretches from Montclair to Pasadena –– and Metro’s 268 line, which connects Altadena to bustling El Monte Station.
As a last resort, there are three parking lots — although all were full when we visited. There’s a drop-off, though, for motorists and ride-hail users. There’s no street parking in the vicinity; however there are free shuttles to and from the parking lot of Santa Anita Park for the convenience of those willing for whatever reason to ride a shuttle but not a Foothill Transit or Metro bus.
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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, CurbedLA, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California. Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from 1650 Gallery.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Ameba, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Mubi, and Twitter.
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