Chinese Lantern Festivals Light Up The UK

Lantern festivals and events are becoming more and more popular in the UK. We take a look at why that might be and the significance of lanterns to the Chinese.

Legend of the Lantern

What are lanterns? Where did they come from? How did they originate?  Obviously, lanterns are a light source that were previously used for illuminating spaces such as entranceways. They’re made with many materials but the most common ones in ancient China were paper and silk, perhaps with a wood or bamboo frame. And believe it or not, fireflies were also sometimes caught to be used as short-term lanterns.

So, they’re just used as light sources? Not entirely.

The tale goes like this. Once upon a time, sometime in 230 BC China, after Emperor Ming got a hold of Hindu scriptures he had a great temple built. He placed the scriptures and many paper lanterns in this temple as a way to symbolise the Buddha’s power. Paper lanterns have stood the test of time and still exist to this day bringing with them a host of other connotations, such as joy, celebration, good fortune and longevity; an object full of positive symbolism. It’s no wonder that people still use them.

So, how about sky lanterns? Well, this story begins in 3 BC China with historic figure Zhuge Liang. Liang was also known as Kongming so for the purposes of this story we’ll stick to Kongming. Kongming first used sky lanterns as a way to communicate with his troops. He found himself in a bad situation and needed to summon help against the enemy. Sky lanterns served their purpose in this situation and, funnily enough, this is how they obtained their alternative name ‘Kongming lanterns’.

Lighting the Festivals

If I said “Chinese lanterns” now, what would you think of? Would you think of either of these tales? I doubt it. Unless you’ve taken an extensive course in lantern history, in which case I applaud you.

But no, nowadays most people traditionally associate them with Chinese festivals.

Which festivals you ask? Number one: the Ghost Festival where people place lotus-shaped lanterns in rivers which are supposed to act as symbolic guides for their ancestors. Number two: the Lantern Festival where the lighting of many lanterns takes place to signal the lunar New Year celebration’s last day. Number three: the Mid-Autumn Festival where lanterns, which symbolise the sun and light, are used to celebrate the end of the harvest. And the last use, whilst not a festival, sees children take lanterns to temples to solve riddles on them in celebration of Chinese New Year.

West for the Winter

As was previously stated, lanterns are becoming more and more popular, so much so that the UK has seen a growth in lantern festivals.

Longleat’s Festival of Light is one of the UK’s earliest, and Europe’s largest, Chinese lantern festival, which transforms the Safari Park into a winter wonderland every year. Incredible, giant lanterns in all shapes and sizes can be seen there throughout the month of December into early January. As it’s a safari park, many of the lanterns come in animal form making it a spectacle to remember. The Magical Lantern Festival is another large Chinese festival making its debut in Roundhay Park, Leeds this year. Hosted in Europe’s largest city park, visitors can follow a trail around Roundhay Park and witness some of the most artistic and beautifully constructed lantern installations outside of China; lanterns which represent and celebrate Christmas, as well as Chinese culture and heritage.

What’s the reason for this growth in popularity? Well, a number of reasons could play into this. For the 380,000 Chinese people already living in the UK, it’s a reminder of their home and culture; a celebration of what’s important to them. China also provides one of the biggest numbers of new immigrants to the UK, with 40,000 Chinese migrants in 2014. Chinese lantern festivals would then have the purpose of welcoming and accommodating new migrants to their new home, providing them with a sense of comfort. The biggest reason, perhaps, may be to do with the British fascination for pretty lanterns, and the positive impact they bring for tourism. In the wintertime, stately homes and their gardens are probably not at their best; it’s cold, often wet and plants and shrubs lack colour. So what do they do to combat this? They usually hold ‘festive’ events that prominently feature lanterns and fairy lights, maybe with some ‘Christmas mulled wine’ or ‘winter hot chocolate’ included, in an effort to appeal to visitors. The beauty of the lanterns is a big draw as we move towards Christmas. We like to take festive-looking pictures and create magical moments with our family and, therefore, for the tourism industry, lanterns are great money-spinners. Also, the China outbound tourism market to Britain is growing with visits from China increasing 46% in 2015, making winter lantern events a great way to also accommodate to this growing market.

Some of the UK’s winter lantern events include Christmas at Kew, a winter trail throughout lantern-lit gardens, which is now in its fourth year. A botanical after dark experience awaits visitors; an experience boasting 60,000 patterned lights in the Tunnel of Lights. Similarly, Glow Wild at Wakehurst also offers a lantern-lit journey through the grounds and gardens of a spectacular Elizabethan mansion. As well as marvelling at the lanterns, visitors are able to absorb the architectural beauty of the mansion whilst enjoying marshmallows and hot chocolate. Events like these are found around the UK, each one displaying stunning light installations; another use it would seem for the historic Chinese lantern.

A beautiful tradition and, some would say, the more lanterns the better.


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The Chinese want to eat Chinese, right?

Dim sum, fish and chips or something entirely different – what would a Chinese traveller choose? That might sound like a silly question, but promoting a business efficiently to the rising Chinese outbound travel market requires consideration of Chinese tourists’ preferences and the barriers to sale. Many businesses have already caught on to this, with places like Bicester Village introducing Mandarin guides and signs to take away language barriers that may dishearten travellers. Hilton has introduced the Huanying Program to many of their hotels, which provides Chinese customers with a more personalised stay by including a larger range of traditionally Chinese breakfast options, adding jasmine tea to the guest rooms, and more.

While shopping evidently has a large appeal to Chinese tourists, food and quality meals are also important considerations. When it comes to hospitality, tea and coffee-making facilities rank the highest in importance of what they want in their hotel rooms. A Chinese traveller spends 59% of his/her budget (excluding accommodation) on food. Clearly, food is big business.  To help you market to this, we had a look at some food preferences amongst Chinese tourists.

So, which is it? Dim sum or fish and chips?

Actually, it’s oysters. At least that’s what the Chinese tour operators we hosted recently in Brighton seemed to favour when we took them to The Regency Restaurant. Besides plates and plates of oysters, other popular dishes included lobster, crab salad and mussels. Not only does this imply that seafood has great appeal for a nation with distant coastlines, it also shows a desire to indulge in foods beyond Chinese tradition.

Travellers want to experience the local cuisine for at least one of their daily meals.

Young Chinese tourists do indeed like to try the local cuisines of their chosen travel destination, just as our guests enjoyed seafood in Brighton. In fact, 34% of Chinese travellers prefer “independent hotels with local flavours,” again revealing a desire to try new food. In fact, “travellers want to experience the local cuisine for at least one of their daily meals.” What’s more, trying local cuisine has become proof of a traveller’s unique experiences abroad, as it is deemed “fashionable and desirable” for tourists to indulge in food that differs from that which they are accustomed to in China. Since President Xi Jinping shared a fish and chip supper with David Cameron at the British PM’s local pub, the popularity of this traditional seaside plate has grown exponentially with Chinese visitors to the UK.

Whilst there is a growing interest in trying new foods, there are a few rules which do still ring true for the majority. Hot drinks are more popular, especially in the winter. Our Chinese interns choose a cup of hot rather than cold water for the office drinks round, and hot breakfasts are always chosen by our team when they come to London from Beijing. Dairy products are not widely consumed; when serving tea or coffee, do not add the milk, but offer it on the side. Lamb is another favourite, and spicy flavours go down well, but these don’t have to be Chinese. Indian, Thai and Indonesian food are all popular.

While the desire to try local food is certainly prominent amongst younger Chinese travellers, the duration of a visitor’s stay, and their age, may change this. Those who stay abroad longer often miss the familiarity of Chinese food, and may resort back to it. Although tasting local foods is a praised experience, the comfort of home will often come beckoning. Similarly, travellers over the age of 35 will often prefer familiarity over new experiences, and are more likely to stick to traditional Chinese dishes.

Variety, variety, variety! (And a Mandarin menu might help too).

So what does all this mean? It means variety, and providing Chinese tourists with both local dishes and with a range of Asian-style foods for when they simply want a “taste of home.” If you cater more commonly to youth, then a selection of local dishes will do, but if you have older guests, then remember to include some recognisable dishes.

Another important, practical consideration is accessibility. Looking at a long menu written in English with a huge selection of different dishes (sometimes with ‘clever’ names), can be completely overwhelming. Having a Mandarin menu available is definitely favourable and it may be sensible to select a few dishes to present in Chinese as the ‘dishes most popular with our Chinese guests’. This allows the guest to choose something they know they will enjoy, whilst also saving any risk of losing ‘face’ by ordering a bizarre combination by mistake. It is also important to accept China Union Pay, because Chinese tourists “increasingly wish to use the same payment methods overseas as they do at home.” Essentially, both variety and accessibility are key watch words for marketing your hotel or restaurant to Chinese tourists.

To find out more about how you can appeal to Chinese tourists and their food preferences, contact us now for a no obligation chat. For more news and views on the Chinese tourism scene, please read our other articles or sign up to receive our newsletters.

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