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Going totally crackers

[ 2009-02-16 10:16]     字号 [] [] []  
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Going totally crackers

When Zhang Yimou conceived the opening gala for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he intended that fireworks would show off one of the "four great inventions of ancient China". His plan was sidetracked, however, because those supervising his work did not want the world to focus its attention on gunpowder, which would presumably lead to unwanted associations, such as cannonballs.

Going totally crackers

Even so, the most dazzling fireworks show I have ever seen - and I'm sure many would concur - was the Zhang-directed opening ceremony. It was not only spectacular, but also artistic. Designed by Cai Guoqiang, it did not just catapult the event to a crescendo, as is its usual function, but acted more as an audio-visual orchestra, or at least its percussion section, giving the show its rhythm and vitality. The giant footprints, the smiley faces, the waterfalls - all the simulations of concrete objects were juxtaposed with patterns and forms that pleased and heightened the senses.

Barely one month passed before I started to witness the ramifications of this "greatest show on earth". I was in Hohhot attending a trade fair, and on its eve a televised gala was held in a stadium. It, too, was punctuated with pyrotechnics - on a smaller scale but no less fancy. I was aghast: How could a local event be so spendthrift as to imitate the Olympics celebration? How much would that have cost taxpayers? (Such events are usually State-sponsored.)

I could only imagine all the wannabes across China who, though deficient in originality, were quick to learn from the master and festooned their official or business functions with Olympic-styled firework spectacles.

That's why I welcomed the Lunar New Year, because the fireworks would be spontaneous instead of organized, and paid for by individuals instead of government organizations. Guess what? I got more than I hoped for.

This was the first time I had spent a Spring Festival in Beijing, so I could not compare it with 2008. Some of my colleagues told me last year's was even more excessive. Still, I could not detect any sign of moderation.

The original purpose of fireworks was to frighten away evil spirits that were supposed to show up at the end of the year. Who are these spirits? I don't know. If they include the apparition of economic recession, it was nowhere in sight.

I did not know the fifth day of the Lunar New Year has a special meaning. Fireworks on that day are supposed to bring good fortune. So, anyone who owns a business hits the streets and sets off strings of crackers. But I didn't know there were so many businesses in the community where I reside. I could count just a handful of restaurants, but obviously the residential compound houses an amazing number of small offices. The length and intensity of the fireworks on that night exceeded the one on New Year's Eve and kept my baby daughter from sleeping.

Then came the Lantern Festival, the last day of the holiday, and the tragedy that the authorities probably feared all along. Investigators have concluded industry-grade fireworks, the kind used for the Olympics, caused the massive fire that engulfed the annex building of the new CCTV headquarters. The whole operation was illegal because it never applied for the permission required for these kinds of fireworks, and CCTV staff ignored police intervention before the building caught fire.

So, who is to blame? Lax regulations or lax implementation? Everyone expects the pendulum will swing to the other extreme next year.

Going totally crackers

For many years, metropolises like Beijing forbade the use of fireworks in their downtown areas. Fire hazards were just one of the reasons. Other reasons include physical damage to properties and passersby. This has been substantiated with a news report, which mentions 103 firework-related fires in Beijing and 403 people injured.

In the long-running debate about the pros and cons of lifting the ban, I always sided with the laissez-faire school. Spring Festival without fireworks is just not complete. Suggested alternatives such as playing banging sounds on loudspeakers were simply ridiculous. Almost all actions, like all drugs, have side effects. We cannot outlaw something just to make government management easier.

Having witnessed this year's incessant extravaganzas, I'm toning down my rhetoric. In a sense, I'm shifting from a freewheeling firework proponent to the position of a regulator. We should not go from total ban to total hands-off. The spontaneous shows people put on side streets were so big as to rival those of government-run displays. And they lasted into the wee hours of the morning. From occasions of delight, they are now dangerously close to a public nuisance.

However, if you drove around town on one of the big nights, you could tell which were the desirable communities. Low-income families would use ordinary crackers, the kind that made a popping or whooshing sound without much aerial fanfare. The new districts, such as Wangjing in the northeast, were awash with non-stop exhibitions of the fanciest kind.

I heard one of these kinds of firework cones cost hundreds or even thousands of yuan, which means some people spend the average annual income of a regular worker on lighting up the sky in front of their home or business. Sure, they delighted onlookers, too. But wouldn't it be delightful in a more meaningful way if this money, or part of it, was disbursed to those in need? Just envision the smile on a kid in a poverty-stricken school when he or she receives free textbooks and stationery from some stranger who lives in some big city. Isn't that more beautiful than the stars, peonies, dahlia, or any other effervescent but evanescent sounds and shapes made possible in a flourish of fireworks?

But I digress.

I'm unsure whether excessive displays of fireworks are acts of self-aggrandizement, rather than just burning money. In the early 1990s, there was an incident in a suddenly rich southern province of two businessmen setting fire to large bills in a display of brinkmanship. If the rural workers who make the fireworks are happy, I guess I should not complain about rich people drawing attention to themselves by setting off fireballs. In Chinese, someone "on fire" can mean he is "hot", which, in turn, means he is more desirable than his rivals.

The most unique fireworks show I've ever seen was in Houston, or rather, above Houston. It was the Fourth of July. Fireworks were sporadic but all around the city. The plane I was on flew across the city before it landed at the city's airport and afforded me a fantastic aerial view of the city.

I figured not everything I saw was legal. There was a barrage of reports of cops finding vendors illegally selling fireworks for the holiday. Cities in the United States usually have one government-organized display, and citizens supplement it with their own legal or illegal mini-shows. The Lunar New Year celebration was restricted to one specific location and time so that firefighters could be on standby.

Now I'm beginning to see the benefit of this approach.

Speaking of a bird's-eye view, you wouldn't have noticed there was a Chinese city on the ground when you flew at night in the 1980s. I remember clearly when I arrived in Shanghai from Vancouver in 1986. It was like everyone was in a bomb shelter. But if I had been flying above Shanghai or Beijing on Monday evening what a sight that would have been!