Already as I write at 11 this morning, the echoes of explosions are rolling through city streets already largely emptied by the national holiday.
When midnight strikes – 12 hours before US Eastern Standard time – the sky above Beijing will suddenly light up with countless thousands of rockets and the noise of firecrackers will be deafening. And the pandemonium will continue for at least half an hour without a moment’s respite.
My cat hates it. And the Beijing city government, in killjoy mode, citing noise and air pollution, frowns on the eruption, too. It has cut the number of fireworks shops by 20 percent this year to fewer than 1,000, and they are allowed to do business for only 10 days – half the normal period.
So Beijingers have been stocking up while they have the chance. At one of the tented stalls that spring up before each New Year, a businessman spent nearly $300 on a selection of high-powered rockets and bangers.
“It’s a traditional Chinese festival and I have looked forward to it since I was a boy,” he said. For a while, he recalled, the government banned fireworks altogether. “It felt like something was missing,” he said. “I’m glad to have the traditional feel of the festival back.”
“We let off fireworks for good luck,” explained Riley Zhu, loading his basket with several packets of firecrackers. “It scares away bad luck. I don’t really believe that, but I do it because it is a custom and because it is fun.”
The Chinese claim to have invented fireworks. Legend has it that about 2,000 years ago a cook accidentally spilled some saltpeter into a fire and found that it burned with beautifully colored flames. It was another thousand years, however, before a monk, Li Tian, packed a bamboo tube with a gunpowder-like substance to make the first Chinese firecracker.
Though China is proud of its contributions to world culture and science, authorities are now trying to curb the use of fireworks. CoolSome 138 cities have banned them altogether because they are bad for air quality.
Beijing, the capital, has not dared go so far. But the city government has issued warnings. "The fireworks will generate a huge amount of pollution in a short time, increasing the density of sulfur dioxide and PM2.5, the major airborne pollutants," Li Yunting, head of air quality at the Beijing Environmental Monitoring Center told the state-run news portal China.org.cn.
Pollution levels could go off the charts soon after midnight, she predicted.
If they do, I shall take my share of the blame. Because I will be letting off the biggest, baddest firework I could find – a whopping great bandolier of gunpowder-packed firecrackers weighing 24 lbs., 7 oz., and promising 10,000 bangs. Yes, that was 10,000, igniting one after the other, in rapid ear-splitting succession.
If that doesn’t evoke a traditional holiday wish for good luck in the coming Year of the Goat, I don’t know what will.