Magnolia Plantation lights up its historic gardens for the first time in 300 years with world-class Chinese lantern festival

by Bill Davis | News Editor

For the first time in 300 years, more than the moon will illuminate the gardens at Magnolia Plantation. In fact, it will be lit by fantastic dragons, zebras, and fiery lanterns.

Running from  Nov. 15 until March 15 of next year, “Lights of Magnolia: Reflections of a Cultural Exchange” will be featured at the plantation’s famous gardens.

Twenty-three internally lit lantern installations will dot the grounds, with themes ranging from the grand entrance arch to a zebra on the savannah.

But the highlight may well be a massive Chinese dragon. The dragon’s tail stretches 200 feet along the oak-lined entrance to Magnolia. Its head towers 45 feet into the moss-draped trees.

The dragon itself will be 300 feet long, and 30 feet tall, and will feature 26,600 pieces of porcelain chinaware of different sizes for scales, according to Joy Lin, the Toronto-based international project supervisor of the massive installation.

Lin says the artisans have been too busy working, that they have not been able to visit any of Charleston’s famous sites prior to opening day.

Overall, there will be 22 different types of lanterns, installed by nearly two dozen artisans who relied on the work of nearly 100 more artists back in China. The installers will have lived her for six weeks to complete the lights festival.

Magnolia lent them a kitchen, enabling the lantern group to bring in a chef from their home country so they wouldn’t get too homesick. “It’s rough for them to leave home for one or two months, where some have young ones, or if they even have children in high school, because that is time when they need more emotional support,” says Lin.

It took 11 shipping containers packed full to ship all of the pieces from mainland China that will be constructed in and above the gardens here.

Setting a value on the installation is impossible, says Lin, who adds that its value should be measured in beauty.

Historically, Chinese lanterns date back to the 5th century Han dynasty when Buddhist monks began incorporating them into spiritual celebrations.

By contrast, Magnolia is barely 340 years old, founded when rice was all the rage in South Carolina agriculture.

Lin says that what drew her group’s attention to the possibility of coming to West Ashley was that the plantation’s gardens are some of the oldest and most beautiful in this country.

Magnolia Plantation executive director Tom Johnson says his gardens should have “never” gotten this festival. “We’re too small” of a market, he says of Charleston, adding that “this sort of thing is destined for cities like Chicago or Charlotte.”

They have already done similar installations in cities like Miami, Nashville, and Racine, Wisc.

Johnson says proudly that this is the biggest public garden installation of this kind in the country. And the thing is the Chines company approached the plantation, and it still took a year’s worth of negotiations to smooth everything over.

“They knew more about us than I did,” says Johnson, who credited the plantation garden’s international following as the primary reason it was selected.

Johnson says that the plantation has over $1 million invested in this festival, and luckily more than $1 million in tickets already sold. But even then, there are obstacles.

“We don’t have the ability to provide the power needed to generate enough electricity to light the lanterns,” says Johnson. “That’s why we are renting the generators at $25,000 a month to provide 125 kilowatts, which is enough to power one-third of our community.”

Additionally, one of the massive construction lifts used to hoist a three-and-a-half story dragon’s head became so heavy last week that it bogged down in the soil, according to Johnson.

Even parking has become a problem, with the number of tickets presold, there’s not enough at the plantation to accommodate all the expected cars, so Johnson had to arrange satellite parking and a shuttle bus service.

The gardens will be open from 5:30 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. most nights and there will be a three-quarters of a mile walking path where the lanterns can be viewed. Also, Magnolia will welcome food trucks to just outside the gardens so that celebrants can also get dinner for their stroll.

Magnolia Plantation & Gardens is located at 3550 Ashley River Road. For more information, call  (843) 571-1266 or visit

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