High-Decibel Tradition

The view from our living room. For hours and hours.

The worst of the bombardment is over now, and I’ve been remembering why we made sure to be out of the country for the last two Chinese New Year celebrations. We hunkered down, in 2010, in disbelief and eventual festering resentment as the windows rattled in our then-2nd-floor apartment, and said, “Never again.” This year, we stayed again, and up ’til last night I was feeling pretty good about how calm and accepting I’m getting in my adaptation to life in Dalian. Now I’m wondering. I have such a bad fireworks hangover, and a generally and thoroughly bad attitude about Zhongguo today. This will pass, I know. I wish all my Chinese friends here and abroad xin nian kuai le; forgive me, though, for also wishing that the passage to the Year of the Snake hadn’t had to be so relentlessly bombastic and seemingly eternal. Grumble.

Do you like fireworks? I do. (I did.) For our first two years living in Dalian, we made extraordinary efforts to wrap up our academic duties quickly so that we could be home for Canada Day, the July 1 national holiday. We lived in the nation’s capital, and the music and fireworks next to the Parliament buildings and the Ottawa River made us feel at home and grateful, jet-lagged as we inevitably were. My enthusiasm-prone bride, however, said this morning, “Maybe we don’t need to hustle right back for July 1 this year.” We had about 23 consecutive displays last night, the eve of the Snake. 

We had had a preliminary the Saturday night previous, when “xiao nian”, the “little year” (one that most Chinese I’ve talked to can’t quite explain), leads up to the Big Bombing. Fireworks here are unregulated, often illegal, extremely cheap and everybody does his own thing. (There will apparently be some big municipal blast in a couple of days, for reasons also unclear. Perhaps by then the atmospheric gunpowder-residue-index will have fallen to dangerously low levels.) Just in our apartment complex that comparatively mild night of festive banging, there was enough exploding to account for a dozen southern Ontario towns’ patriotic fervour. The week leading to last night was punctuated by frequent outbreaks of explosive vigour, and then came The Night.

If you haven’t been in China (or maybe London during the Blitz, or Beirut in 2006) you can’t quite imagine it. The barrage began at about 4:30 pm, even though it wasn’t dark yet. The eagerness is overwhelming. By six, it was full on, and it didn’t let up until after well midnight. This is not exaggeration. There were still rockets going up at 1:45 am, one apartment complex south of ours, still the long red ribbons of firecrackers going off like cinematic machine guns past 2 a.m. A thick pall of cordite-smelling smoke hung over the whole area, and higher than our ninth-story windows. A twenty-minute stroll around the area left my wife and son with clothes stinking of gunpowder. I finally gave up trying to outlast the noise and succumbed to sleep. I was awakened at 6:15 a.m. by the first gunfire of New Year’s Day. I slumbered fitfully from then, earplugs engaged, but gave up by 8:30.

Like many Chinese phenomena, what struck me with amazement in 2010 smacked me again last night: this is such an individualistic country. The reason that the blasting goes on and on, of course, is that everybody does his own thing. (There must be some who don’t bother – pyrotechnics are all around us for hours on end – but there is a huge number of participants just in and among the 32 buildings of our enclosed community. And it is very much a Guy Thing.) In the midst of all the personal rocketry we witnessed from Apartment 902, including spark showers that would cascade to the walls of the building on either side of the courtyard launch pads, there was something that dragged us away from The Bourne Ultimatum (the kind of movie you can follow even when your neighbourhood is exploding). There was display, within 200 metres of

Poor quality, but I like it: conveys the sense that a building not far from ours is engulfed. We all were, sort of.

our living room window, by some wealthy exhibitionists that rivalled the big Canada Day in Ottawa: the same quality of high-altitude showers, mostly, and nearly the same duration. When it was over, the slightly less spectacular stuff, which had never waned, went on for another four hours. TOO MUCH! As Shakespeare’s Friar Laurence tries to counsel Romeo to “love moderately” – he listened about as well as China listens to complaints like this – he makes the too-much-of-a-good-thing argument. ”The sweetest honey is loathsome in its own deliciousness,” he urges, and I would add how many friggin’ explosions does our community actually NEED?  

This may be entirely too grumpy and critical a take, but this protracted display of family income – what could be more “disposable” than the income spent on a momentary, deafening brightness? – is one of many indicators of what I see as a profound deficit in civic responsibility. There are infamous stories here of citizen refusal to help, including the two-year-old child who was passed by repeatedly after being struck by a car. (That one prompted a national agony of hand-wringing shame.) My wife, a splendid turner of ankles and other kinds of public spills, never fails to be incredulous that nobody helped me! Nobody even looked at me! The fireworks festival that surrounds the New Year is another: still lighting fuses at 2 a.m.? Or starting by 6? There appears to be little thought of children or the elderly (let alone cranky foreigners!). A lot of this is about conspicuous wealth, a competition for prestige, which also fuels the proliferation of Benzes and BMWs and Toyota Land Cruisers around our complex. There is also, so far as I can tell, zero inclination to clean up after oneself; as I ran today, I found the expected huge piles of red paper shards from the casings of firecrackers, and the cardboard tubes that house the rocket are everywhere. Capitalism helps, though. There is a significant underclass of people, right next door to our relatively comfortable middle-class enclave, that was out early this morning collecting the rocket tubes for re-sale. I’m guessing it’s an early-recycler-gets-the-tubes thing, and it was as surprising how much was gone by 10 as how much public garbage has remained from the hundreds of neighbourhood families doing their separate-but-traditional thing.*

Sorry for the humbug. The Spring Festival, centring on the New Year, also brings many more smiles per capita, and the Chinese devotion to family – especially evident in the tens of millions who travel long distances to get home – is quite moving (if you’ll excuse the pun). Shoot, my bride even made the traditional jiao zi (dumplings) for New Year’s eve, and I can get with jiao zi nearly anytime. I love the fresh beginning implied by a new year, but vainly lament that this particular culture’s launch didn’t seem like such an endurance contest.


* An added note on the day after New Year’s: dusk has fallen, and the boys are still blowing things up. It sounds like Canada Day, but it’s mainly background noise compared to two nights ago. In the weeks leading up to the fireworks orgy, northeastern China has had off-the-charts levels of air pollution, and so there were calls in Beijing for people to restrain themselves, and the suggestion of administrative restrictions, though I was dubious about that. An American report today (with some good photos) suggests that maybe Beijing ren DID back off on the fireworks. A little, anyway. It will likely take a bigger crisis, though, to make much of a dent in this beloved tradition.

Comments (2)

  1. I feel sorry for you .The situation you were in was more severe than we were . If I were you , I would go crazy and have no mood to celebrate the new year . So welcome to my hometown or just move to another place next year, I suggest..
    Once excessively displayed , it had nothing to do with the civilized society. Restrictions should be made . I hope that it wil be better next year~

  2. ZiRan Guo

    Vous avez raison.On my opinion,it is also complicated.On the one hand,the tradition brings a lot of happiness to families and create an atmosphere of the Chinse new year,but on the other hand,it pollutes the environment and offend the people who want to have a good rest.So maybe the best solution is that the governement restrict people to play fireworks but tries to attrict people to enjor the fireworks shot off by city administration and be contented from it.

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