All over the country, kids are giddy with excitement as the Fourth of July approaches. I remember the feeling. Ironically, my youthful enjoyment of this patriotic celebration was enhanced by an element of foreign intrigue: Firecrackers were the crucial link in this shadowy chain of commerce, and they connected me to a historic and mysterious enclave on the other side of the world.
The sale and use of fireworks were banned in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I lived. Some cities did allow the purchase of sparklers, erupting cones, and other cheerful combustibles that were labeled "safe and sane" (although no one has ever been able to explain to me why sanity was a consideration in the fireworks industry). But the restrictive if sensible policies of adults often make forbidden items all the more compelling to kids, especially boys in junior high school. Efforts to circumvent the rules were aided by the proximity of San Francisco's Chinatown, which offered easy access to a wide variety of recreational explosives.
I was surprised that firecrackers came in so many different brands, all with colorful labels and exotic names like Rooster, Camel, and Black Cat. Just as exotic was the point of origin, clearly printed on every pack: "Made in Macao."
A visit to the family set of The World Book Encyclopedia informed me that Macao was a port city on the south coast of China and that it had been under Portugal's control since 1557. It was obviously the kind of wide open harbor town in which clever merchants were able to devise their own methods for overcoming economic and political barriers.
Knowing the adventurous background of Macao allowed me to justify the acquisition of illegal firecrackers as part of a cross-cultural enterprise dating back to the great seafaring explorers. In my mind I could visualize the prized cargo stored on board a rusty, unmarked freighter sneaking into San Francisco Bay under the cover of a dense evening fog. I imagined the captain to be a large, jovial rascal resembling Sidney Greenstreet. As the ship docked at an abandoned pier, he would supervise the crew with brisk efficiency: "Step lively, gentlemen! The boys of Palo Alto are paying 25 cents a pack for these goods! Next week, we'll be living high in Tangier!"
But, the freewheeling era in Macao may be winding down. Portugal will return control of the port to China in 1999, and there are predictions that it might even be swallowed up by its neighboring city, Zhuhai. But some things don't change. Even though firecrackers are banned here in Oregon, I have heard them lately exploding around the neighborhood. Through the darkness, the familiar sound is like an echo from the past, drifting in the endless current of the trade winds.
* Jeffrey Shaffer is a regular Monitor contributor. He lives in Portland, Ore.