Lantern festivals are a traditional part of Chinese culture that are usually staged around the Chinese New Year. But the husband and wife team of Donnie Mui and La Heu are working to make them a part of the winter holiday tradition in Gwinnett County.
Mui and Heu operate the Illuminate Festival of Lights, which opened Nov. 19 and runs on weekends through Jan. 1, on a farm in Lawrenceville. It raises funds for their new nonprofit, the Good Haven, which the couple founded to work with local agencies such as Gwinnett police, area food banks, women’s shelters and foster homes.
The nonprofit was founded, and the festival is done at Christmastime, in memory of their daughter, Serafina Grace, who was a Christmastime baby but died when she was about two months old.
“We do these light festivals in honor of her being born around the holidays and being able to celebrate it with other families to bring families together,” Heu said.
This year’s festival comes after a couple of years where the Asian community has faced discrimination. Some of that discrimination emerged in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there was also fear in the Asian community in the aftermath of shootings at two Asian-owned businesses.
In light of those issues, Mui and Heu want the lantern festival to serve as an opportunity for the broader Gwinnett County community to see Asian culture — not just Chinese culture — in a positive light.
“Especially coming out of COVID and you see so much news about just hate crimes against Asians in general, we’re just hoping we can shine a different light, not on our difference, but our similarities,” Heu said. “We are all humans and we all need each other and so we’re hoping this will shine a light that we’re Asians, but it doesn’t matter.
“Even within the Asian community, there’s divisiveness, and so we just want to create this to say there’s beauty in all cultures, so let’s just come together and celebrate our differences and learn from it.”
While the county has prided itself for years on its diversity, Heu sees the festival as a chance to infuse some of the multicultural atmosphere into the holidays in Gwinnett.
“We wanted to do these types of festivals to encourage people to come out and learn about each others cultures, whether it’s through these Chinese lantern festivals or it’s through food,” she said. “Because Gwinnett is such a melting pot of cultures, we really want to bring people together and to really celebrate.”
This is also the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic that the festival, which was previously on display at Sugarloaf Mills in 2018, has been held.
Heu said moving it to a farm setting allows the festival to feel more intimate for attendees whereas the parking lot at a shopping mall meant it was spread out more. They also could not keep many of their larger lanterns, some of which were 35-feet tall and 72-feet wide, from the 2018 festival due to space issues, but there is still a large number of hand-crafted lanterns on display.
The farm was donated to Good Haven and Heu and Mui had to get a temporary use permit from Gwinnett County to hold this year’s festival at the site, but they hope to make it an annual event depending on how this year’s festival goes.
“A lot of people like the natural landscape of the festival so we’re looking forward to having a really good holiday for the neighborhood,” Heu said.
The lanterns are organized into three themes: under the sea, a Chinese emperor’s garden and a Christmas village. The Christmas village section includes both secular side of the holiday, with Santa Claus and reindeer, as well as the religious side with a nativity scene.
“It’s just a time for families to come together and see beautiful lights,” Heu said.
There are other activities at the festival besides touring the lantern scenes, however. Attendees can also go ice skating, feed goats and miniature horses or enjoy a meal in a food tent with heated seating areas. The food served at the festival ranges from hot dogs, pizza and nachos to a Vietnamese noodle soup, a Thai curry soup and Chinese cuisine.
Heu said she and her husband hope the festival will give Gwinnettians an option for a family-friendly activity to do as the community emerges from the end of the Delta variant wave of COVID-19.
“Especially just coming out of COVID, when everyone’s been locked down for the past year, we’re hoping that this will be a good time for people to really come together and celebrate the holidays,” she said.
The festival will be open from 4 until 10 p.m. on Fridays through Sundays, but will also be open on Wednesday and Thursday on the week of Christmas since children will be out of school that week.
It is located at 1575 Hood Road in Lawrenceville and tickets can be purchased for $12 in person or at a discounted $10 rate online at illuminatega.com, although children under 3 will be admitted for free. Ice skating tickets cost $7 for people who bring their own skates and $10 for people who want to rent skates.