On Febrary 27, 2010 a Chinese New Year fireworks celebration in the Guangdong province went awry and killed 19 villagers.
On February 28th, 2010 I was in Yenshuei Township in southern Taiwan facing a several hives containing tens of thousands of fireworks set to fire into the hundreds of people that were crowded around it–on purpose.
If one thing can be said for Chinese people, it’s that they love fireworks.
I climbed atop a concrete wall about 25 meters away to get a better view. I knew that I would be more exposed than if I were in the crowd on the street, but this was a much better place from which to photograph and record the eruption of fire. The only barrier between me and the the enormous hives of firworks, which combined were about the size of a semi-trailer cut in half, was a telephone pole. I heard a crackling and fireworks began to shoot up into the air. Then there were several ear-popping booms, like cannons going off, and with each boom a pair of large yellow fireworks rocketed into the night sky like anti-aircraft shells. Then, the noise faded away. There was a short silence, and the crowd began bouncing. Everyone was hopping from one foot to the other. There was a loud screech and fireworks began firing in all directions–including into the crowd. I pushed my body against the telephone pole my iPhone in one hand recording the spectacle on video, my Nikon D80 in the other snapping pictures as fast as possible. I could feel the fireworks glancing off of my hands and arms. This is the video that I shot.
The Yenshuei Fireworks Festival, also known as the Beehive Fireworks Festival, is an annual celebration commemorating the end of a 17th century cholera plague. During the celebration, which takes place on the 15th day of the first month of the lunar year in the Yenshuei township, sedans carrying Guan Yu, the Chinese god of war, are paraded through the streets from temple to temple where enormous hives, which contain up to 60,000 fireworks each, are set off, shooting fireworks rapidly in all directions. Festival goers clad in heavy clothing and full-face motorcycle helmets crowd around the hives to stand in the barrage of firworks. When the hives are ignited everyone jumps up and down to prevent fireworks from becoming lodged in their clothes and burning through them. Despite the precautions, people are hurt every year. The worst injuries occur when a firework enters a reveler’s helmet from below and explodes inside. Many people wrap a towel around their neck to cover the gap between the helmet and their neck, but many still do not.
Probably the most common problem, though, is the one from which several of my friends suffered. They began vomiting after inhaling too much of the acrid smoke given off by the firecrackers.
The Yensuei Fireworks Festival is Taiwan’s answer to the running of the bulls. It’s very popular in Taiwan and getting more popular every year. To bring in more tourist dollars officials have been making the festival bigger and bigger. The strategy has paid off. An estimated 350,000 people attended last year, a huge increase over an estimated 50,000 just a few years ago, and a huge tourism boost for a township with a population of just 28,000.
A friend once told me a story about how the festival was conceived. I can’t guarantee its veracity, but it’s an interesting story nevertheless. Sometime in the 17th century Yenshuei was stricken by a cholera epidemic that lasted 20 years. That part of the story is widely accepted to be true. Desperate and frustrated, the mayor of the town enlisted the help of a spirit medium. The medium told the mayor that ghosts inhabiting the city were responsible for the epidemic (ghosts causing disease and misfortune is common in Chinese folklore). The medium suggested that the city invoke the help of Guan Yu, the war god, and set off massive numbers of fireworks to scare the troublesome spirits out of town (using firecrackers to scare ghosts is also common practice). The plan worked, and now the Yenshuei township celebrates every year by shooting millions of fireworks and deliberately at spectators. I’m don’t quite understand the logical connection between scaring ghosts and shooting fireworks into crowds of people, but there are many facets of Chinese culture that confuse me even more. Take for example pickled chicken feet.
This year was my third visit to the festival, and I noticed some differences from years previous. First, I noticed many men in the streets who would wait until several revelers in protective gear were standing nearby. Then the men would hold one end of a string of fireworks several meters long, light the other end, and then run down the street towards the crowd dragging the exploding string behind them. When they neared the crowd they would start swinging the increasingly short exploding string around over their head.
I saw one man finish this display by bolting into a nearby doorway with the last of the firecrackers, scaring the bejeezuz out of everyone in the house. He came out bellowing laughter, his face bright red.
The second new display I noticed was mainly performed by teenagers. They would wrap themselves up in strings of fireworks and then set them off. Below is a video of a young guy I met lighting himself up. Please be patient watching the video. He had to abort his first two attempts and move out of the street when firetrucks with their sirens on came roaring by. The third time, though, was a charm.
Here is a picture of two friends wrapped in fireworks, just before they light themselves up, and as the fireworks exploded.
Although the Yenshuei Fireworks Festival is still relatively unknown, it’s destined to become a famous cultural attraction. It is, as far as I know, the only festival of its kind in the world. It is completely unique. It’s loud, destructive, wasteful, and dangerous. It’s Taiwan’s running of the bulls and it deserves the same international attention, and I hope to make sure that it receives it. I hope to popularize it in my first novel about expatriates in Taiwan the same way Hemingway brought attention to the running of the bulls in his first novel, The Sun Also Rises.