Beijing banned fireworks in 1993, citing concerns about potential environment pollution and property damage. After more than a decade of citizens’ complaints about the lack of festive atmosphere, the ban was lifted in 2006. My first Chinese new year in Beijing was, coincidentally, 2006* (which was also my zodiac year!)
At the time I didn’t know all the history. Actually, I’d been told that outside the city it was like a war zone, but that in town things were fairly tame. Well, turned out the reason the suburbs had been such a warzone was that all the city-dwellers left town to light fireworks. But no one I knew could predict the insanity that was about to be unleashed. In the 13 years since fireworks had last been permitted, Beijing had changed a great deal – especially in terms of the population and its purchasing capital.
Think about it this way. The government bans your favourite holiday tradition (other than food). After 13 years, and with more money in your pocket than ever before, it is once again permitted. You probably have children or grandchildren who have never experienced it the way you remember. Obviously, you go out and pour a lot of cash into preparing for this special event. Now, mutliply that scenario by about 5 million and you have an idea of what happened next.
For about two weeks prior to the new year and four weeks after, there was a constant rumbling through the city, as though a jumbo jet was taking off nearby. It’s hard to explain how the noise echoed continually in the huge maze of high rise buildings. On new year’s eve it was insane. From about 11pm-2am it was constant pyrotechnics in every direction, and while it lessened it didn’t stop all night. This pattern continued for the next few years. By 2008 you could buy some insane fireworks – I’m talking things so big they were illegal, yet not hard to purchase if you had the cash. But in 2009, things began to change.
Fireworks set off at the new CCTV building for Yuan Xiao Jie 2009 (Lantern Festival – the last day of new year celebrations) went wrong – setting alight the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, a fancy building still a few months away from opening. I was actually driving down the 3rd ring road at the time, and saw the whole face of the building alight. The road was closed soon after and the blaze took hours to get under control. A firefighter died and people eventually went to prison. Despite warnings from police, they had used illegal high-powered fireworks. (See more on the story here and here).
After that, people seemed to be a little more safety conscious. The government cracked down on the types of fireworks being sold, and was more proactive about publicising restrictions. Add the worsening air pollution and greater public awareness of the problem, and the fireworks mania has died down somewhat. There are still a LOT of fireworks set off everywhere, but not to the level of insanity as in years past. The last two years the NYE fireworks were pretty much done by 1am which I considered miraculous.
Over time the government has become much smarter about making sure the regulations are heard and understood. This year I have personally received three separate notices about the use of fireworks during Chunjie. First, I received a visit by 小刘 [Xiao Liu], a young woman who works for some sort of government-relations office in our compound. She was going door-to-door making sure residents were aware of fireworks regulations. When she knocked on my door she was holding a form with the rules – although she thoughtfully pulled out an English version for me. Each form was stamped by the local branch of the Shunyi District government, and had spaces for signatures both by the representative handing it out and the resident receiving the form. Seems that no one actually signs these forms, but Xiao Liu had a clipboard with a space for a signature from every apartment. If no one was home when she visited, she taped a copy of the form to their door with a request to sign and return a slip to an office in the compound.
The form is an agreement between the local government and the residents, to ensure safety for people and property during Chinese new year. There are 10 rules on the form. In a basic Tanya Paraphrase, they are:
- No manufacturing, transport, storage or sale of fireworks without permission.
- Certain types of fireworks are banned.
- Fireworks can only be set off during permitted times/locations. Follow instructions; don’t drink and firework. (Okay, fine, it says not to use fireworks after drinking, but I like my version better).
- Immediately report any illegal fireworks to authorities.
- Don’t aim fireworks at crowds, vehicles, or buildings.
- Don’t set off fireworks inside buildings or from rooftops or balconies.
- Don’t get in the road of pedestrians or vehicles while setting off fireworks. (Which means, don’t set them off on footpaths/sidewalks or roads).
- Use no unsafe methods to set off fireworks that could harm the nation, groups, other people and property.
- Minors 14 and under must be supervised by adults when setting off fireworks.
- When the pollution level is high (“orange” or “red”) fireworks are prohibited.
If you haven’t lived in China, perhaps these sound like common sense rules to you. Let me assure you, they’re aren’t. I’m sure I’ve seen all of these done multiple times. Footpaths are very common locations for setting off fireworks, as is the middle of the road. Entry/exit driveways are quite sought after locations. And it’s not uncommon to see kids with their own fireworks.
In addition to this, I received two text messages from my network (China Unicom) which I suspect were sent to ALL mobile phones in Beijing. The first came the day before New Year’s Eve. It was a safety message aimed at those who would be leaving town. Since the official holiday starts on New Year’s Eve, I suppose the day before is as good a time as any to remind people.
PSB Fire Department Tip: while celebrating the New Year holiday, please be careful when using fire, electricity and gas. When leaving home turn off electricty and gas mains. Set off fireworks safely, away from crowds, residential buildings, and flammable areas.
The second message came this morning – New Year’s Eve. This was longer and contained the permitted time periods for setting off fireworks – the same as for the last few years.
Beijing Municipal Commitee and Municipal Government wish you a happy Chinese new year and family celebration! At the same time a reminder: fireworks are permitted inside the 5th ring road on New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and from 7am-midnight from the 2nd-15th of the lunar new year [Feb 1-14]. At other times fireworks are prohibited. In order to maintain good air quality, and build a beautiful Beijing, we recommend that you reduce or stop fireworks during “orange” heavy pollution; fireworks are prohibited during “red” pollution. Thank you for your understanding and cooperation.
It’s now early evening on New Year’s Eve. It will be dark soon and I’m hoping for a bit of a show, but nothing too crazy. I can already see some bright red fireworks going off in the distance. I don’t know what to expect here. I now live outside the 5th ring road and therefore outside the regulations. Every evening in the past week I’ve seen brightly coloured fireworks (a lot of red and green) from my living room window. Most have been half a kilometre away, across the road in a more open area – close enough to be pretty, far enough to not be overly noisy. Which hopefully bodes well for tonight’s entertainment…
* I arrived in China in 2004, but just after CNY; I was in Australian during CNY 2005.
Here is a photo of “the rules” for those who are interested…