(This is a story written by our friend Brandon Taylor. He is a recent PSU grad that is living and working in China. See the article in the China Daily by clicking on the headline above.)
The barrage started on a Friday morning—a few distant booms that soon led to louder explosions and fizzling sounds drawing closer to my apartment. As the day progressed, so too did their frequency until night fell and a display of bright colors and lights also filled the sky. Fireworks. It could mean only one thing—Spring Festival.
Fellow expats had told me what to expect of the festival celebrating the Chinese Lunar New Year ahead of time: Beijing would be all but deserted since people would be traveling home; fireworks would be almost non-stop for about a week; and there would be a lot (and I mean a lot) of red everywhere. Some suggested I leave the city, or even the country, to avoid the "mayhem." But since it was my first Spring Festival in China, I looked forward to the holiday with great anticipation.
I spent the early hours of the eve before the New Year at home. A number of young Chinese were setting off fireworks near my compound, giving me a front-row seat to my own private show of red, white and green lights from my sixth-floor apartment. But as it drew closer to midnight, I hopped in a cab and took off for Houhai bar district adjacent to a lake in downtown Beijing.
I knew the area would be perfect to see the celebratory display when the clock struck midnight, the lake providing a wide open space with few buildings or other obstructions to the fireworks rising from across the cityscape. I didn't even have to look at my watch to know when it was officially the Year of the Tiger—the number of fireworks being set off all but told the time.
The area quickly burst forth with light—at times covering the fact that it was even night—and whistles and howls filled the air as rockets took skyward and firecrackers danced on the sidewalks around the lake. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen before, one massive coordinated, yet uncoordinated, spectacle in the sky to celebrate the coming of yet another year for China. As the show in the sky progressed, the Drum and Bell Towers north of the lake slowly disappeared behind a cover of rocket exhaust fumes and debris.
I wasn't quite sure what was more impressive: The fact that people were allowed to set off fireworks in the streets (I come from a state in America where home-made and improvised fireworks are illegal) or the sheer number that were being ignited, especially in such close proximity to large groups of people. A few times a rocket would explode a bit too close to where I was standing making my ears ring. But to see the fireworks paint the skyline of Beijing was worth the temporary deafness.
At one point, people on one side of the lake started shooting fireworks at people on the other side of the lake, or at least in their general direction, and that's when I decided I'd had enough Chinese New Year fun for one year. The walk back to Dongzhimen was equally impressive—sparklers and firecrackers illuminating the street as I walked briskly along.
The next day I went to one of the miaohui, or temple fair, taking place across the city, expecting to find only a few stragglers since I'd been told most Chinese go home for the holiday. What I found was a sea of people eating, playing games to win prizes and having a good time. A few festivalgoers sported tiger costumes and tiger-eared hats with orange and black stripes. While tempted to buy a hat for myself, since I was born in a Year of the Tiger, I decided to just take pictures of the merry tiger-people instead.
The miaohui was similar to carnivals or county fairs I'd enjoyed as a kid back in the States—sans the unusual amount of red decorations hanging from every tree—and I felt remarkably at home among the crowds. I tried my luck at a game, attempting to win a large stuffed tiger, to no avail. Maybe my New Year's good fortune hadn't kicked in yet.
After more than a week, the constant fireworks, not to mention the smell of sulfur and gunpowder, grew somewhat tiresome, as the explosions were amplified and echoed within the walls of my apartment compound. But I easily shrugged it off, realizing that with 5,000 years of history and a plethora of inventions that have proved vital to human civilization—i.e. paper, the compass, printing and gunpowder (a crucial component of fireworks)—the Chinese had a lot to celebrate. And I was glad to have celebrated with them this year.
The author is an American working in Beijing