Friday, February 01, 2008

An 'It's that time of year again' haiku

First sign of the storm,
Distant rumble of thunder:
New Year's fireworks.

It begins. For the past few days - since the weekend, I suppose - we've been intermittently disturbed by distant bangs and pops and rattles, the fabric of the day torn by unseen staccato explosions. You imagine this is was it must have been like during the bad times in Beirut or Sarajevo - isolated bursts of gunfire becoming so commonplace that you barely register them any more, barely stir in your sleep.

The Chinese New Year's Eve is still 6 days away, but the warm-up for the annual firework frenzy has begun.

When I first arrived in this city, a firework 'ban' was in place. It was not very vigorously enforced, and the firecracker mayhem during the 15 days of the 'Spring Festival' holiday was pretty extreme. I had naively supposed that it couldn't get much worse when the ban was lifted two years ago. Oh boy, was I wrong! I then tried to kid myself that everyone was indulging in a cathartic firework splurge to celebrate the end of the ban that first year, and that it wouldn't be quite as bad in subsequent years. But last year, it was every bit as bad. And this year? Well, I imagine it will be the same. Spent firecracker casings cover every sidewalk, fill every gutter; they accumulate into snowdrifts, are sometimes swept up into towering street-corner pyramids; intermittently they are spirited away by street cleaners, but always this detritus of singed cardboard is replaced within hours. Gunpowder smoke clogs the air continuously; it's often so bad that it closes down the airport. New Year's Eve will be the worst - a deafening, unremitting cacophony from late afternoon through to the early hours of the following morning. That first 'big' New Year a couple of years back I spent with a few friends in a near-deserted Bookworm - and the din from outside was so intense, we struggled to carry on a conversation. Yes, that is the peak of pyrotechnic overkill - but it will continue, more or less round-the-clock, for the whole of the following fortnight. It is quite an ordeal to live through (refer to my posts from this time last year - especially this one - for more examples of the hazards we face at this time).

Ah, but maybe things will be a little better this year. The government, I am told, is 'cracking down' again - but this time the focus is on firework sellers. The reports I've heard are garbled, though: I'm not sure if there's supposed to be a ban on selling fireworks within the city altogether (in which case people will just go out to the outlying villages to stock up), or simply on kerbside vendors and other 'unlicensed' outlets (which is likely to be pretty ineffectual, and sounds as if it is just a way for the government to try to cash in on the consumer frenzy by collecting 'licensing' fees). I forget what the figures bandied around for Beijing's expenditure on fireworks was the last couple of years, but it was colossal - well over a billion yuan, I think. Of course, the thing you can never find any accurate or comprehensive figures for is the number of firework-related deaths and maimings - which, given the volume of explosions being set off in the city this month (and given the fact that there is limited public education on safety, and that the Chinese seem to have very little innate sense of self-preservation), is likely to be HUGE. The 'illegal' firework manufacturers and vendors are, I fear, no more than a convenient scapegoat for the government's failure to take any real measures to promote public safety - the few accidents that are admitted to in the next fortnight will almost certainly be blamed on faulty merchandise rather than reckless behaviour and a lack of public education about basic safety precautions.

We must all keep our heads down and our fingers in our ears for the next three weeks. It's going to be a rough ride.....

1 comment:

Tulsa said...

Thank you for addressing this, again. I'd been contemplating how to bring it up to share with "Tulsa's Tea Club" so as to explain my shattered thoughts and disorientation over the next month or so without making it sound oh so "woe is me, it's new year's".

Even with your fair presentation of the subject, I fear the enormity of this pain is difficult to understand if you don't live through it. Just as I assume if you don't live with a 24 hour jackhammering outside your window, it really is difficult to understand how noise pollution can cause anyone to go mad... it's just noise, right? wrong. it's dangerous to the health and mind.

not to mention the body - watch out for those stray rockets.