January 30th, 2009
And so I discover that Pyromaniacus pekinensis is an odd beast, largely nocturnal, but not quite…
I don’t think I’ve ever spent a Spring Festival in downtown Beijing since fireworks were allowed within the Fifth Ring Road. Certainly don’t remember any such Spring Festival. This, these last couple of days of the legal holiday, is the closest I’ve come to it. And last night, as darkness fell, the barrage began. And it continued, so far as I could tell (hey, I spent most of the night asleep, as most people usually do), right through till about lunchtime. Then there was a lull through the afternoon, a lull that lasted right up until, oh, about when darkness fell no more than half an hour ago (the longer I take to stop writing, the longer ago the barrage resumed).
Yanqing was much quieter. But then again, Yanqing doesn’t have anywhere near the population density of downtown Beijing, especially out in the countryside. And rural folk are far more pragmatic than their urban cousins. Not that I’m complaining- nine years and ten Spring Festivals in China have put me in that potentially dangerous state where I am inured to the sound of large explosions in close proximity. And the long, constant rumble with occasional closer, sharper cracks is oddly comforting. We, lzh and myself, may not have bought any fireworks ourselves- in fact, the last time I remember buying fireworks was when I lived in Taiyuan, 2001, although I may have bought some in the first Spring Festival I spent in Yanqing, I’m not sure- but our neighbours are doing their bit to make sure the Cow Year goes well.
And there is the seductive smell of kaimoana coming from the kitchen, along with the sound of my wife wrestling a red-hot wok.
Well, obviously, fireworks are best set off at night. But I was a little surprised to hear and see them going right through till lunch time. Actually, I have to admit to being a little surprised at the ferocity of last night’s barrage- and tonight’s looks set to match that. But then again, as I already said, I have not yet spent a Spring Festival in downtown Beijing since fireworks were allowed within the Fifth Ring Road.
Not that the former ban ever stopped those truly determined to Blow Shit Up, of course.
Still, nothing I’ve seen up here in the arid north can compare to what I experienced in Yangshuo as the clock ticked over from 11:59pm, January 31, 1999, or in Changsha at the Spring Festival immediately afterwards. Of course, those memories are undoubtedly augmented by my then recent arrival in China, the passage of time, and Changsha’s particular place in my heart, but even so…. There is the simple fact that in Yangshuo that night all the revellers gathered into tight group hugs on the tables as shrapnel bounced off the backs of those of us in the outer rings, and when the barrage eventually stopped, we could not see the other side of West Street, the smoke was so thick. Changsha at Spring Festival did not have quite the same intensity-of-proximity, but offered instead an intensity of sheer volume. Volume as in the sheer amount of explosives demonstrated and the explosive power available to ordinary citizens for ridiculously low prices. Not once since I left Changsha have I seen repeated bright flashes originating far off in the distance and illuminating the whole sky followed countable seconds later by a deep boom.
But for the third time this evening I’m hearing what sounds a hell of a lot like semi-automatic rifle fire….
Well, the writing of this post was interrupted by the consumption of the source of that “seductive smell of kaimoana”, and now I’m ordered to wash up. Better get to it.
Sorry to put another aimless ramble out there, but I’m inclined to think that inspiration is half sought for and half given. If you don’t write, the muse will leave you, and sometimes you have to just start writing from whatever blocked-in position you find yourself in just to keep the muse’s attention. Fireworks and the memories they set off are an easy option this time of year.
Heheheheh…. When I was in Taiyuan I turned 25. An older, wiser friend told me, “25 is a good age- you’re young enough to do stupid shit and old enough to know better.” I took advantage of that maxim. That Spring Festival I stocked up on fireworks- I had a prized 10,000-cracker roll which I took to said friend’s house to enjoy with him and his kids (13-year-old twins at the time, and yes, I was saving that roll of crackers for good friends). I also spent an evening or two shooting mortars off my balcony- and came close to damaging my left eye when one mortar blew the bottom out of the tube and so didn’t shoot as high as it should’ve, giving me a facefull of sparks when it exploded maybe two feet above me as I was looking right at it. At a party hosted the preceding Christmas by the missionaries foreign teachers at the fancy school down at Jinci, I’d won a teddy bear with a demonic tendency to launch into the most irritating elevator muzak as soon as it was moved- won? No, deliberately lost the game to claim said teddy so I could remove the offending piece of technology and silence the bloody thing. And then that Spring Festival I took that teddy bear down to my school’s sports field expanse of dirt, stuffed it with a 500-cracker roll, doused it in baijiu to make sure, lit the fuse, and ran like hell- just as I had promised the missionary teacher I had won it from. Like my friend said, 25: Young enough to still do stupid shit, old enough to know better.
I’m now facing 33, with a wife bemoaning her proximity, from the other end, to 30 (actually, her birthday is two days before Lantern Festival, and we’re pretty much equidistant from 30). My fireworking is a lot more safety-conscious these days. Me and my father in law, we’ve got it worked out. He selects the fireworks, places them, and steps back to a safe distance. I work my fuse-lighting magic and, as soon as I see sparks, run like hell- and my “run like hell” is scouted out and planned before I even consider lighting the fuse. We have fun together.
And regards that opening comment about “Pyromaniacus pekinensis”: I strongly suspect that had I been in my hometown, as in the city in which I was born and mostly raised, on November 6, this post would’ve opened:
“And so I realise, for the umpteenth time, that Pyromaniacus wellingtonensis is a particularly stupid beast that more rational beings would’ve assumed had won a diamond-studded platinum Darwin Award by making itself extinct a long time ago were it not for the foolish, blind luck of the terminally idiotic…”
And I base that on my childhood and youth in Wellington, marked every year at the end of October and the early part of November by yet more stories of complete halfwits doing abominably stupid things with fireworks.
I mean, it’s one thing to blow up a teddy bear; it’s a whole other thing to deliberately damage another living thing just to get your jollies. Or start a bushfire just because it’s Guy Fawke’s.
But how can one be a complete halfwit? Surely the ‘complete’ and the ‘half-‘ negate each other?
Which reminds me of something that has always puzzled me about China: How is it that Spring Festival fireworks can be set off in such intensity over such an extended period with apparently so much less damage than is comparatively caused in New Zealand by Guy Fawke’s? (and yes, I am very well aware that Spring Festival brings many a call for the ambulance- 新京报 today had a report about a child injured by a manhole cover sent flying by the explosion set off by fireworks of gas captured in the well below the manhole cover, and that’s certainly not the first I’ve heard of such incidents) Or, how is is that Chinese dogs are so much better socialised than their Kiwi counterparts, despite the apparent lack of proper training or ‘animal rights’ at this end of the Pacific?
Alright, I think I’ve run out of things to ramble, for the time being.