Nothing says “happy new year!” like a city exploding

Those of you who read this blog with any kind of regularity will not the ever-so-subtle tang of cynicism bobbing to the surface every once in a while like the occasional chunk of lemon in an otherwise well-balanced gin and tonic. Hopefully you’ve realized I actually really love living in China, and that the cynicism is simply because I’ve been here long enough that the honeymoon phase is a distant, distant memory. Keep reading long enough and you’ll get some pretty cynical material when I’ve been back in the States a while, too. I’m an equal-opportunity cynic. I’ve been in China almost nine years, and there are LOTS of reasons why I’ve been here as long as I have. One of those was on display last night.

People, nobody, and I mean NOBODY, knows how to ring in the new year like the Chinese. End of discussion. The U.S. is mostly a collection of wild, overpriced parties where people seem hell-bent on starting the new year by drinking themselves into an oblivion so complete they don’t even remember the new year starting. I imagine in other countries it’s similar. But last night, as I was standing outside with my friends Patrick, Danny, and Albert, watching the Chinese do their level best to detonate the world, all I could do was smile. At some point the noise, the flashes of tinted gunpowder, the hail of split cardboard shell-cases, simply wiped away anything but the immediate visceral response of the moment. Everyone on the streets was a kid again. I know I was, and had been for most of the evening, or at least since roughly the time we went outside to set off some fireworks of our own.

We went outside at roughly 8:30 or so to shoot off some Roman Candles of Patrick’s. Danny Wahl had also brought along a plastic bag full of cherry bombs, except that these, which were tiny plastic soccer balls roughly the size of a large chocolate truffle, were filled with nothing but gunpowder, and made an impressive amount of noise when detonated. At first we were content to toss them into a concrete-and-tile basin nearby which in past years might have held a small reflecting pool. The resulting echo was gratifying, but then we started looking for ways to make the explosion louder. We dropped one into a metal pipe, another into a trash can (though not when Patrick’s son Moyer was watching, because you just know Moyer would be asking to do that later on), and walked the complex looking for something else to aid in the detonation, but found nothing. Then, like the kids we have probably never stopped being, we spent the next hour or so trying to figure out a way to detonate all the rest of the cherry bombs at the same time. Sadly, our efforts resulted in failure. We had placed them all in the thick cardboard husk of a used, er, mortar would be the only word I could think of to describe it, and set the husk on fire, but this merely melted the plastic shells on the cherry bombs and caught the gunpowder on fire. Dan, Danny, and I stood there watching the thing burn, with the occasional small belch from the pyre showing where a higher than normal concentration of gunpowder ignited, and Danny shrugged and said, “Well, at least we set something on fire.” True enough.

The rest of the neighborhood, however, really knew what they were doing. Bear in mind that we were in an apartment complex with roughly fifteen or twenty buildings, all around 5-7 stories, which means everyone was essentially operating in a giant acoustic tunnel, or at least an amphitheater. So when, as was common, someone lit off a massive string of fireworks, the sound was absolutely deafening, and as this was always supplemented by a pall of thick sulfurous smoke which didn’t carry far on the light breeze, the overall effect was, well, totally and completely awesome.

A word on fireworks safety in Tianjin, too, before we get to the coup-de-gras. The fashion among men setting off fireworks is to light the fuse with a burning cigarette which they’ve been smoking during the entire setting-up phase of the operation. We looked up once to see a man unrolling a string of powerful fireworks, his cigarette smoldering just inches from the shells, and it’s a testament to the effect of the evening that we didn’t run for cover, but just started laughing and kept trying to figure out a way to blow up 20 cherry bombs at the same time. This would probably be why Shanghai and Beijing have strict (and boring) anti-fireworks laws.

And then there was midnight. I have to say here that this year was not nearly as out-of-control as my last go-round with Spring Festival five years ago. Back then, you couldn’t even hear the person next to you, even if you were inside. This year we were having a decent conversation up until abut 11:45. Still, the apex of the evening was impressive all the same. Patrick, Albert, Danny, and I went outside to catch things at high tide, and ended up in a very large courtyard area in the middle of the complex where people were shooting off EVERYTHING. Nothing small, either. Nobody had sparklers out there. It was all mortar cannons, deafening explosions, staccato pops, and flashes of light. Nobody was talking because nobody could hear anyway. The ringleaders were two Chinese men who had bought a box of fireworks, and an accompanying launcher, so powerful that when one of them shot off from the base we could feel the impact tremors in the ground and the “whump!” in our chests. You’ve probably all been to at least one decent fireworks display, but you haven’t lived until you’ve one of the big, industrial-strength variety explode directly over your head. Wow. They shot off probably 30 before we left, and every single time we shouted like little kids. We even helped put out a small grass fire that some of the flaming cases had started on a nearby hillock. That’s just Spring Festival for you.

It was bittersweet, too, because this may be the last time for quite a while I’m in town for the Spring Festival. Even if I’m in town again, who knows if it will still be this intense? Certainly this year wasn’t as intense as five years ago. In five more years maybe people will just be waving sparklers around. I hope not. My friend Dan, who left about a half hour before midnight so he could photograph the insanity from his own apartment, sent me a text message this morning which pretty neatly sums up the Spring Festival: “This is nuts. I want to spend New Year’s in China every year for the rest of my life!”

 

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4 Responses to Nothing says “happy new year!” like a city exploding

  1. Thanks for this–I was really missing TJ and trying to explain to Blake and friends what it’s really like–I’m going to make them read your blog. You can hop on over to ours for a post devoted to jiucai and another one featuring our homemade guotie(r). Sounds like you guys had an awesome time. It’s not Chinese New Year in TJ unless something’s burning.

  2. Jane says:

    ??/ Bonjour Rob,

    Love your descriptions, totally spot on! This is my first Chun Jie on the mainland & not some other Asian country that has outright bans on just about everything! Before this past week, I wasn’t sure if I had heard the “whumping” ones, but any doubts I had, have definitively vanished into the sulphurous, fire-filled & smokey sky. Do I have video for you! I had to get the bao-an to go a head of me & put out the fires just so I could get inside – with leftover ones still exploding as I walked. The ground outside our apt building entrance has growing scorch marks of the “recreational munitions”. I don’t know if I would call it “recreational”, it feels like they are pretty intent on blowing something up! Also, I have great pics of a guy chainsmoking beside one of the firework vendors!

    I have never heard live warfare before, just from movies…but if you close your eyes, I think it sounds no different. I hope some of my African (continent)friends here are not suffering from PTSD from growing up in war-torn countries.

    I asked a friend why so much noise today & she said that because this is the 5th day & “according to tradition”, the recreational warfare of neighbours trying to out-do each other right now is supposed to “hurt the bad people”. I think it would be great if we could have a top 10 (scratch that, 10 is not enough) top 20 Firework Holidays list, rating the intensity & reasoning for the amount of fireworks. (& so I know how many earplugs to buy). I wonder if they could be categorized by the sounds? Have you heard the ones that also give off whistling & whurling sounds? I’m only grateful that most people in my xiao qu have followed the rules & disconnected their car alarms. I do love fireworks, but also now really think that earplugs are one of the world’s greatest inventions!
    ?????

  3. Jane says:

    Bonjour Rob,

    Love your descriptions, totally spot on! This is my first Chun Jie on the mainland & not some other Asian country that has outright bans on just about everything! Before this past week, I wasn’t sure if I had heard the whumping ones, but any doubts I had, have definitively vanished into the sulphurous, fire-filled & smokey sky. Do I have video for you! I had to get the bao-an to go a head of me & put out the fires just so I could get inside – with leftover ones still exploding as I walked. The ground outside our apt building entrance has growing scorch marks of the recreational munitions. I don’t know if I would call it recreational, it feels like they are pretty intent on blowing something up! Also, I have great pics of a guy chainsmoking beside one of the firework vendors!

    I have never heard live warfare before, just from movies…but if you close your eyes, I think it sounds no different. I hope some of my African (continent)friends here are not suffering from PTSD from growing up in war-torn countries.

    I asked a friend why so much noise today & she said that because this is the 5th day & according to tradition, the recreational warfare of neighbours trying to out-do each other right now is supposed to “hurt the bad people”. I think it would be great if we could have a top 10 (scratch that, 10 is not enough) top 20 Firework Holidays list, rating the intensity & reasoning for the amount of fireworks. (& so I know how many earplugs to buy). I wonder if they could be categorized by the sounds? Have you heard the ones that also give off whistling & whurling sounds? I’m only grateful that most people in my xiao qu have followed the rules & disconnected their car alarms. I do love fireworks, but also now really think that earplugs are one of the world’s greatest inventions!

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