BEIJING (MindaNews/21 January) – For the Chinese, welcoming a new year would not be complete without lighting a firecracker, whether to ward off evil spirits and shoo away bad luck from the previous year or just for the “bang” of it.
Since the invention of the gunpowder in China centuries ago, the use of fireworks and other types of firecrackers during festivals and other special occasions have been embedded in the very fabric of Chinese culture and custom.
The age-old practice even went beyond China’s shores. Just like the influence of eating Chinese noodles, other Asian countries and the western world have also learned to appreciate the beauty as well as the noise of fireworks, making the industry as a lucrative business.
As the Lunar New Year approaches – the most important and celebrated occasion in China – expect every key city down to the villages to turn into virtual war zones, said Liu Zhao, an information technology expert whose family usually spends thousands of yuans worth of fireworks every year.
This year, Lunar New Year’s Eve falls on January 22, when the Chinese will celebrate the year of the Water Dragon by again setting off billions of fireworks.
Although the Chinese government imposed several strict guidelines in regulating the productions of pyrotechnics and banned the lighting of fireworks in some key cities in China for public safety, still the deeply rooted custom could not be easily subdued.
In some areas, only the government-organized fireworks displays are allowed during the Lunar New Year celebration, also known as the Spring Festival.
Just like in the Philippine, the Chinese government also adopted some soft approaches such as giving away free CDs that carry the sound of exploding fireworks, and plastering posters to warn revelers of the risks of lighting firecrackers. However, these tactics and cautions will likely again fall on deaf ears.
“There is no better alternative to the feeling of setting off a firecracker,” Liu admitted.
Beijing, in particular, eased its ban on fireworks during the festival in 2006 due to the unpopularity of the policy, but the government only allows the lighting of fireworks during the two-week spring and lantern festival celebrations.
Before the official holiday period, walking around the outskirts of Beijing, where the enforcement of the ban for firecrackers is quite lax, one would jump by the sudden deafening noise of firecrackers. Streets are often littered with burnt red papers that are usually used in wrapping the firecrackers. Not to mention the excessive lighting of fireworks also adds to the already bad condition of Beijing’s air quality.
The strong appetite for firecrackers also led to the yearly occurrence of fireworks-related injuries and fires. There are no records of casualties last year, but in 2010, at least 35 died and 7,480 fires were recorded with losses amounting to 28.5 million yuan, the official Xinhua news agency reported, citing Ministry of Public Security figures.
A report from the state-run China Daily said that Beijing’s main eye hospital has prepared a battery of medical workers on duty in the upcoming Spring Festival celebration as they expect a “surge in the number of outpatients.”
It said Tongren Hospital has received 1,128 patients with fireworks-related injuries since the ban was lifted in 2006. Nearly 30 percent of the patients are youngsters, the paper said.
Chinese pyrotechnics is one of the oldest industries in China that dates back to roughly 2,000 years ago, and controls 90 percent of the fireworks sold worldwide for the past 20 years, data from the International Fireworks Association said.
Shen Changzheng, who works in a pyrotechnic company in Liuyang City, known as the “cradle of fireworks” in Hunan province, said among their main clients are the United States and countries in the European Union.
He, however, said orders abroad are expected to shrink due to the financial problems that these countries are facing.
According to him, Chinese manufactures are now starting to develop new technology in producing firecrackers to reduce production risk, but this entails huge capital investment.
The technology is part of the manufacturers’ response after China’s state council issued a stringent policy over the pyrotechnic industry following incidents of warehouse explosions in previous years.
China has hundreds of fireworks manufacturers, but among the largest companies are Panda, Dancing and Qingtai, which are gradually shifting its focus to its domestic market.
“The Chinese fireworks market, estimated at 24 billion yuan a year, is bigger than all combined overseas markets,” Zhao Weiping, chairman of the board of Panda Fireworks, told the China Daily.
The top best sellers are the traditional bian pao 鞭炮, which looks like a snake (or in the Philippines, sawa), and the colorful yan hua 烟花 (fountains).
Traders said prices of pyrotechnics vary from as low as three yuan to thousands of yuan depending on the size, function, and quality of the products. The bian pao for example can be bought in different lengths, from 50 rounds to more than 20,000 rounds.
Of course, there are also firecrackers that are deemed safe for the kids – the sparklers, sparkling wheels, and Roman candles.
“But the Chinese have this thought that the loudest the sound, the better,” Liu said.
In the past few years, fireworks have also evolved from mere flares to more delightful and colorful “flower fires.” It could even resemble a smiling face, and even letters. Pyrotechnic also employs some music to go along with the show to make the fireworks’ display more meaningful.
While others regard it as a waste of money, for Liu there is no substitution to the joy and appeal that the sounds of firecrackers and the colorful flares of fireworks bring in ushering the Lunar New Year’s celebration. For him, it is priceless. (Darwin Wally T. Wee / MindaNews)