Fireworks (updated w/ photos)

Do we have great timing, or what? Our upcoming travel to Vietnam, like our just-completed trip to Hunan, coincides with the Chinese New Year, when most people in Asia travel home for the holiday, making tickets scarce and expensive, and train and bus stations sloshing pools of black hair and sharp elbows. (Our first China trip together, to Sichuan, coincided with the May 1st holiday, when most Chinese take vacation.) And we happen to be living in Beijing when New Year’s fireworks will be allowed in the city for the first time in twelve years. This New York Times article has the details, as well as some funny remarks by some Beijingers. This explains all the signs posted around our apartment complex, warning people not to set off firecrackers too close to people or buildings. For the last couple weeks, cracks and booms from fireworks, both near and distant, have erupted with increasing frequency. Today you can hear at least one explosion practically every 30 seconds. It’s a bit like what I imagine living in a war zone might sound like, for the explosions seem to follow no particular pattern–they’re not in great bunches or confined to evening hours, or particular locations for example, but just randomly salted over the day and city.

And many of them are very, very loud. In the US, fireworks–especially the ones you can buy legally–tend to be a visually beautiful, night-time event; there are showers of multi-colored sparks, and flower-like patterns in the dark sky. I’ve seen a few of these decorative fireworks in China: some roman candles in Fenghuang, for instance, and people at the subway station selling sparklers, demonstrating their safety to potential customers by letting the sparks fall against their bare forearms. But Chinese fireworks seem to put more emphasis on the aural, rather than visual, experience of exploding gunpowder. Hence the loud report of explosions can be heard as much in the daytime as in the night, and hence the tremendous concussions from some of the explosions–explosive events that, visually, are nothing more than a bright flash of light, but are ear-imploding shocks of noise.

Most of these explosions come out of nowhere–there is no preliminary sound to warn one of the coming shock. These are most likely charges just set on the ground somewhere and ignited. Early last evening, however, there was a particulary heavy barrage of mortar-like fireworks. We could here the smaller explosion of a launching charge (a muffled ‘whump’) coming from over near the railroad tracks, followed a few seconds later by a much louder explosion (deep, clear and reverberating) somewhere in the air above our apartment building. Each larger explosion was followed, of course, by the beeping and whining of the neighborhood’s car alarms going off.

As the Times article points out, most people in the city are glad to have fireworks back, but not everyone. While some think that without fireworks the holiday is just too boring:

“People do nothing apart from eating dumplings and watching TV.”

The elderly, the article says, are worried about their safety and comfort during the holiday:

“Old people don’t want it,” he said. “They just want peace.”

Or they have other priorities:

“I used to like to watch them,” Ms. Li said. “Now, I’m old. I would rather spend the money on a pancake. It’s only 1 yuan for a large pancake.”

Put me down with the old people on this one. I just want peace. And a pancake wouldn’t be bad, either.

UPDATE: I thought the din of exploding fireworks had reached nearly intolerable levels in the late afternoon, but it was nothing compared to what was to come. After increasing pace toward the evening, the explosions seemed to die down as people settled in to watch the big CCTV special, like we did, at eight o’clock. (Man, was it corny–like a Chinese version of a Lawrence Welk show, with some not-so-subtle digs at Taiwan thrown in, but that’s another post…) fireworks in Beijing But the irregular beat of explosions built to an awesome crescendo around midnight. We have a 180-degree view to the east from our sunroom, and in the street in front of our building and all along the skyline there were fireworks going off. The sight was incredible, and the sound was even more so–nearby explosions rattled our windows, and in the background the sounds of more distant fireworks merged into a steady rumble, like a heavy rain beating on a roof. The online newspapers report this morning that at least 500,000 people were lawfully setting off fireworks last night, and that so far ‘no one has lost an eye.’ So yes, like the old people in the New York Times story, I had just wanted some peace, and had gone to bed with my earplugs at the ready well before midnight. But it was truly an incredible experience; way better, even, than a large pancake.