Happy Arbitrary Explosion Day!

That’s what I’m calling the fifth day after Spring Festival, a day which, so far as I know, has no official title and yet somehow manages to be important enough to merit the detonation of an impressive number of recreational munitions. I met up with some friends for roast lamb that night, and from my vantage point across the street at the base of the traffic bridge, the apartment complex from which they were all emerging looked and sounded like it was being bombed. Nearly continuous flashes of light, a thick pall of smoke, concussions that I could feel from hundreds of meters away. . .and people, that’s for a holiday that doesn’t even have a name. (It might, of course, but I don’t know it, and no one else seems to, either.) It says something when the bench-warmer holiday is far louder than a first-stringer in the West.

But then we’re not really going for noise, are we? The Chinese are, or seem to be. Spring Festival is a virtuoso display of fireworks manufacturing, with every conceivable color and pattern blooming in the night sky. Arbitrary Explosion Day features mostly long strings of firecrackers that, when set off in an apartment complex, make the Warsaw Uprising sound like a birthday party at the Olive Garden.  Nor are there any rules or even social expectations for when the noise should start and stop. Hence the title for this post. On the official Spring Festival day, everything crescendos according to an unwritten, unconscious, universally agreed-upon schedule, peaking at midnight and then tapering off slowly over the next hour or so. It’s impressive. There’s nothing like it in the world. The “fifth day after” tradition, on the other hand, feels redundant, and is pretty annoying to boot. Whether you think so or not, there’s a kind of code for partying. There are times to be loud and crazy, and times not to be. If, for example, you’re doing Jello shots and karaoke inside a giant sandbox, and it’s midnight, that’s a serious party. The same scenario at 2:00 a.m. just furthers that impression, and even neighbors who don’t like what you’re doing would at least have to admit that you’re a seriously committed, though perhaps unbalanced, reveler. If you’re still doing karaoke and Jello shots at 9:00 in the morning, however, it just feels gratuitous and stupid, the kind of thing you’d expect Axl Rose to be doing after all the groupies have left and the whiskey is gone. The people setting off recreational munitions here at 9:00 or earlier on Arbitrary Explosion Day (and later, too) have that same air of “oh, well, there’s nothing on TV and work’s a cosmic blood-suck, so why not?” They have a drawn, bored air about them, and go about their demolition work with mechanical anti-joy. Most of them appeared to be middle-aged men (never women; I don’t know exactly why I never see any women setting off bunker-busters), in the standard Chinese middle-aged man uniform (slacks, loafers, micro-weave sweater, cell-phone belt holster, and beige or light brown jacket), who would walk out to the street, set the fuse of a firework off with a lit cigarette (and really, people, if you can think of something that screams “washed-up rock star” more than nonchalantly setting off fireworks at 9:00 a.m. on a Friday with a lit cigarette, I’d like to hear it), and walk slowly back without changing expression as the street buckles under the force of the detonation. You see that exact display all over town on Arbitrary Explosion Day: outside restaurants, in apartment complexes, in the middle of a busy street, wherever.

That kind of thing goes on all day, and has all the earmarks of a party that’s gone on way too long. There’s no real crescendo; things just explode most of the day, and when you’re least expecting it. That, more than anything, is annoying. You expect to be hit with shrapnel and have to run/bike for your life on Spring Festival day. Five days later, though, when you’re ready to leave your apartment building and can’t because an old man has just set off a string of perhaps 1,000 weapons-grade firecrackers DIRECTLY outside the door, it just doesn’t work. You just can’t carry on that kind of celebration that long. But they do their best.

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4 Responses to Happy Arbitrary Explosion Day!

  1. Ken says:

    Gosh, Rob. Been here long? We’re welcoming back the “god of good fortune” who has been gone for the last five days.
    Now, we blew up a good part of the city on New Year’s Eve because it was, well, New Year’s Eve, you know, and we were scaring the fabled Nian out of town, because we knew that all the gods were leaving for five days (hey a little R & R befits the greatest as much as the lowest of us, no?) and so all the noise insured a safe period with no gods to protect us…it says here.
    But NOW, it’s time to welcome back all the gods who are returning to Earth from, uh, somewhere else (they wouldn’t tell me) and if I can make The Most Noise I can be assured of having the Best Fortune in the coming year by attracting the god of good fortune to my home, er, flat, er, street corner. Well, you get the picture. So the fifth day celebration is generally Noisier than New Year’s Eve, and more brightly lit.
    At least that’s what I’m told.
    Xin Nian Hao!

    • Rob says:

      Makes sense. You know, the funny thing is, I’ve been in China about 8 years now, but this is only the third time I’ve been here for the Spring Festival, and as typically all my students/classmates/Chinese friends have all left town and gone home, there’s not usually a person around who can tell me what everything means. Ha! I fare much better during, say, Mid-Autumn Day. Thanks for the comment!

  2. James says:

    It certainly is a display of something. I’ve heard that the fifth day of the festival is a day to pay homage to the god of money, or some such thing, and that the fireworks are supposed to function as a call for new or renewed wealth in the coming year. Whatever the reason, it’s a hell of a show, and is really quite disturbing if you’re trying to do anything but watch and listen to fireworks. Cheers! Good post.

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