When I left my apartment that Saturday morning, I was surprised to find the usually bustling streets resembling a ghost town. Very few people were out, the streets weren’t clogged with traffic, and even the smallest of businesses were closed down. The weather was nice too, with a pollution index of only 170ppms. I felt like I had Beijing to myself, it was both peaceful and nice. I was naive and stupid.
Around 3pm I heard the first explosion. It started with a screech and ended with a deep resonating boom. It echoed through the many buildings squished into one area that form my apartment complex. Nearby where the explosion came from, several car alarms went off from just how loud it had been. That firework was the first I heard that day, but within 3 hours I would begin hear over 10 rapports a minute. Sitting at my desk by the window of my 16th floor apartment, I couldn’t concentrate on my writing. It was 8pm and every other minute flashes of neon light would burst through my window. There were enough fireworks going off that I now heard possibly 30 explosions a minute, some close and some far, but all still loud enough to shake your concentration off whatever you’re doing. From my days of living in downtown Albany, they sounded very similar to gunshots. As the night progressed, there were so many explosions that when skyping with friends I would have to repeat myself so that they could hear me over the noise. Everything from high pitched screeches to low end BOOOOMS, to the sizzling of sparks, to the machine gun fire of firecracker strips and the car alarms complaining about the noise; all of it together forming a cacophony that both gave me an entertaining window show, a small headache as well as subconsciously making me incredibly edgy and snappy. I’m guessing that a lack of peace of mind from explosions outside your home and an inability to concentrate on anything are the right mixture to turn somebody’s mood sour and reactive. By 11pm it felt like I was in middle of a full parking lot, each of the cars blasting base from subwoofers as loud as possible. The view from my window is an amazing one, showing me many buildings, some tall and some only a couple stories high. From within the alley ways of these buildings green, red, and blue fire shot up towards the sky. From the side roads mortars launched into the air, each detonating in an orb of multi-colored fire. The city was alive with fireworks coming up from the ground every thirty feet, like a colorful fountain from the streets. Even on the roof tops of a couple buildings you could see the Chinese, lighting tube after tube to contribute to the mayhem coming from below. I decided I had to go outside and see it for myself.
The air was really hazy when I got outside, and it smelled like cordite and gunpowder. As always when I go outside, I checked the pollution index. This time I was astounded to see that in only 7 hours the air pollution rating in Beijing had risen to 580ppms! Over 400ppms of smog, grime and smoke had been added to the atmosphere from the sheer amount of fireworks they had shot into the sky that night! I could barely even believe it. I continued out into the main streets and discovered it was actually pretty believable, as I watched the Chinese declare war on the sky.
Fireworks were detonated with absolutely no regard for traffic, structures or other people. Cars were gridlocked for minutes because of the explosions happening in their lanes of traffic. There were several very close calls where a car swerving to avoid having a mortar launched into its undercarriage almost drove into another car, or a crowd of people watching the mayhem. Several mortars launched upwards had power lines or tree branches in their paths, and were deflected in dangerous angles towards the public or into the sides of buildings. I’m surprised there wasn’t a structure fire in my area! Because the ground was practically covered in debris and used firework cases, the just barely lit explosives were sometimes hard to identify from the rubbish. Multiple times pedestrians almost walked into or over the equivalent of a landmine. All the while the Chinese drank their moonshine and continued to bombard the sky with explosions, unaware of anything except the next KABOOM.
Being so close to everything my ears began to pop, and my head began pound. I started to make my way back home. To get home I have to take a narrow road that runs along a canal. The once desolate street had been filled by crowds of the Chinese, drawn out to watch the midnight festivities; and with the crowds came mortars, strips of firecrackers and moonshine. The men merrily drank small bottles of rice liquor as they coated the street with primed explosives, without little concern for their proximity to others. As I made my way back I couldn’t help but be surrounded by the insanity; balls of fire shooting past my periphery, strips of small m80’s and black cats creating the sound of machine gun fire and turning their portions of the ground into a flashing fire. Several burning pieces of debris flew from these strips and hit my jacket and my hood, potentially burning me if I hadn’t covered my face to move forward through the smoke and blinding sudden lights. When I made it out of the central fuckery I was able to watch and enjoy a lot more of what was happening. The whole street was full of fireworks, one persons’ work almost burning the person next to them. It was a clusterfuck, and could very easily have ended with a piece of flying fire blinding or scarring me.
I was able to relax at that point, and watched as a man set up a mortar tube not 7 feet away from me. I took my iPhone to capture it up close and on video.
I don’t know if it was a dud or that was its purpose, but instead of launching something up into the air, the tube exploded with what can only be described as a concussive force. I felt my heart literally shutter for a moment and skip a beat, and my ears popped to silence for a second. I felt a sudden dizziness and my body didn’t respond immediately, as I fell into the wall behind me and just barely kept myself from going to the ground. Somewhat recovered, I made it back to my house as quickly as possible, avoiding any crowds I could. I stumbled a little, and sometimes saw double from all the lights. I was shaking from adrenaline and felt like I was escaping a warzone.
The purpose of fireworks in Chinese Culture on New Year’s Eve is to drive away any hostile spirits or demons that plan to bring bad fortune during the coming year. After what I’ve seen tonight, I can’t imagine much has been left standing. To be sure, they even continued to shoot off fireworks at a rate of 20 per minute until 3 or 4 in the morning. The whole Chinese New Year’s Eve, as well as the night following it, were never silent… filled with the sounds of a man made thunder storm for 10s of hours on end. Fourth of July in America has been diminished to sparklers and dollar store smoke bombs when compared to the epic scale of mayhem and insanity that was Chinese New Year in Beijing!