Some people felt that my remark last week that "the Chinese seem to have very little innate sense of self-preservation" was just another of my trademark overstated japeries - but NO, it's really, horrifyingly true.
Although laid up for most of the week with a horrible dose of bad bowel, I have ventured out for an extended walk around my neighbourhood hutongs at dusk on the last two days, to enjoy the celebrations of the Lunar New Year - celebrations which, of course, mostly involve setting off large amounts of fireworks..... on the sidewalk.
I like to share in the joy the local people obviously feel at this time of year; but this empathetic spiritual uplift is rather undercut by the almost constant anxiety that you are about to witness a very nasty accident indeed.
Amongst the outrageously dangerous, unbelievably stupid things I have witnessed in the last 48 hours:
1) Lighting fireworks with a cigarette. A ubiquitous practice - often while the cigarette is still in the mouth. I saw one guy actually squatting down over a box of rockets, trying to light the fuse this way.
2) Sifting through piles of still smouldering spent firecrackers with bare hands, attempting to retrieve any non-ignited ones (on Wednesday night I saw a kid of about 3 or 4 years old doing this, in full view of his unconcerned parents).
3) Attempting to light a volcano firework..... barely a foot away from one that's already in full flow.... and downwind from it (you think maybe you lit the wrong one first, fella?).
4) Holding a cigarette lighter right next to a large Roman Candle - and right up close to your face - in an attempt to illuminate the 'DON'T DO THIS!' instruction written on the side.
5) Two teenage boys teasing each other by tossing lighted bangers at each other's feet (not very big ones, but not trivial either); and, on at least one occasion, one of them picked it up and threw it back.
6) Allowing children to light their own fireworks, and often with little or no supervision (again, fairly ubiquitous; I've seen a little girl of only about 7 or 8 years old lighting some pretty big rockets).
7) Lighting a box of rockets (inadvertently??) lying on its side, so that the rockets scud across the ground and smash into the building opposite.
8) Lighting fireworks in the middle of sidewalks (or, occasionally, in the middle of the road), without any concern for passing vehicles or pedestrians, or nearby parked cars. Yesterday, I did spot a group of Chinese youngsters who - with uncharacteristic good sense - had positioned themselves on the opposite side of a car, so that they could watch their big box of rockets go off in comparative safety. The car (presumably not theirs) didn't do quite so well: they had put their rockets right next to it, and it picked up some scratches and scorch marks on the rear door.
9) Holding firecrackers while they're going off. Yet another ubiquitous vice. And some of these are pretty big firecrackers: they make a deafening racket, and spit big sparks and fragments of casing a distance of some yards. And some of them come in very long strings. But it seems to be a custom with Chinese guys that you have to show how tough you are by holding on to the top of the string until the last possible moment......
10) And - my favourite! - returning to a lit firework. I'm sure this was one of the cardinal safety rules dinned into our heads as children in the UK: "Never return to a lit firework." That might be a somewhat unrealistic rule - I mean, what are you supposed to do? Leave them abandoned out on the street until they bio-degrade?? However, in China the rule seems to be: Always return to a lit firework. As soon as possible. Ideally while the fuse is still visibly smouldering. Pick it up. Hold it as close to your face as possible. Shake it lightly. And, if it is a mortar-type firework, HOLD THE TUBE DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF YOUR EYE and look inside it to see if you can work out what went wrong.
I am afraid I am not in the least kidding about any of this. It is pretty damned dangerous just to be a bystander out on the streets in the midst of all this lunacy. Constant vigilance is called for. Mortar arrangements typically sag, collapse, flop over to a horizontal position - so projectiles could be shooting sideways past your ankles. There are many duds that fail to go off first time, but may take you by surprise quite some while later. There is such a litter of spent firework casings everywhere that it's very difficult to see if there's a 'live' one in your path - you have to watch out for the gaggles of cowering, giggling, expectant Chinese warning you of the possibility of an imminent explosion in the vicinity.
It's fun, yes; but it's also rather terrifying.