We've seen it all before. We stuff our faces all evening with freshly grilled hamburgers and potato salad and maybe some corn on the cob and if we're lucky, apple pie. Everyone gathers on the blankets with an ice cold coke and light sticks and then we wait, eyes to the darkening skies. Then a tell-tale silver streak makes its way from the horizon to above the tree tops and then explodes in a dazzle of strawberry twinkles. Everyone in the neighborhood cheers. We watch for half an hour, as the frequency increases with time, until the stream eventually tumbles into the mass of fire balls, whistles, flashes and bangs that no reputable fireworks show would ever end without. We clap, we smile, we find the cats hiding in the closets, we go to bed.
Ok, so take that, multiply it by 5000, stir in some element of surprise, raise it to the power of echos created by a skyscraper forest and add a healthy dose of crazy men with lighters. That, my friends, was Shanghai on Chinese New Year's Eve.
Year of the Ox!
Fireworks have been set off since the day I arrived in China. The folks in the neighborhood set them off for all sorts of reasons: weddings, festivals, boredom. It's mostly on the weekends and in the small alleys close to our apartment. They set off the loud strings of those suckers, which basically sounds like a pile of bombs lit in the street. But the Spring Festival, which starts with the New Year and goes for about 2 weeks, is the pull out all the stops, take leave of one's senses, fireworks hootenanny extravaganza! Seriously, businesses pay out big bucks for their displays, easily dropping half a million buckaroos in some cases. That's one business. Shanghai has over 16 million people, give or give a million or two. Individuals buy fireworks too. So if every single person bought just one firework or cracker...yeah, that's right folks. It's almost as good as the old question about whether the earth would move if everyone in China jumped at the exact same time. Crazy things happen when the most populated country acts in unison.
So we had heard tell of this fiery free for all. We figured it would be impressive, but we made no real plans for watching the show. We met our friend Daniel to go out for jiaozi, or dumplings, which is apparently very traditional for New Year's Eve. However, hardly any place was open. Most Chinese folks get a week off around the New Year, so the place is oddly like a ghost town with a majority of the shops and restaurants closed down. many people leave to visit family out of town and those who stay, stay inside.
After walking around for at least an hour with no luck, we were darn hungry. I was willing to get some McDonald's at this point. We finally found an open hot pot restaurant, and as luck would have it, they had the jiaozi too. Perfect. So we chowed down, sampled some Chinese alcohol that didn't taste like battery acid, and then moved on to the next order of business: bowling.
I hardly ever bowl in the States, but hell, how many people can say they've been to a bowling alley in China? A bowling alley in China on Chinese New Year's Eve, no less. Plus, they were showing the celebration program from Beijing on the TVs. This was much like the celebration in Yanzhou, although I must say the acrobatics were far more impressive. I had never seen one person sitting on another person's shoulders, while the first person is balancing on a springy pole held between two groups of people, and then just to show off, the two people on top of each other do a back flip, together, and somehow manage to land on the beam again. Several times in a row, too. Wha??? I was completely dumbfounded and amazed. I made a note to see a live acrobatic show live in the future.
Our own physical displays were not so glorious. We bowled a couple games and David and I never broke 100. Daniel turned out to be pretty good though, utilizing skills from a former daily after work bowling habit with his coworkers. Show off. We switched to the pool tables later, but I stink at pool even more than at bowling. It didn't matter for long though, because that's when we realized there was a heckuva lot of commotion going on outside. It was close to midnight at this point.
The bowling alley didn't have glass windows, so we couldn't see anything, but we could certainly hear. We asked the staff to open the black shutters and revealed a world gone mad, the noise exponentially more deafening now. We were on the third floor and from there we could see a small piece of Shanghai, ablaze every 100 feet from the crackers on the street up to the huge fireworks littering the sky in every direction. We could have seen more if not for the smoke that had now joined forces with the smog. Directly below our window we saw at least 20 people setting things off on the sidewalk, running to and fro, switching between smoking their cigarettes and using them as lighters. It's the kind of thing you can never imagine and once you do see it, you can never quite capture in words to convey the way it makes you feel, the way it makes your heart flutter and your lungs forget to fill with air; a rare experience of utter wonder. It was like a joyful apocalypse, a disorienting assault on all senses.
And of course, this does not do it justice, but it's a sample!
We watched for a long time, but the show barely slowed down. It was almost 1 am now and David could no longer hold back the urge to get in on the action. If you don't know David, he loves setting off fireworks. Loves it. I have never seen him grin so much. He was like a 5 year old caught in a rainstorm of chocolate bars. So we hurried downstairs. The big glass doors at the entryway were the only thing standing between us and the madness outside. Before I knew it, David was out the door, armed with my camera. I stayed behind with Daniel, who was not as impressed since he grew up in China around this "very noisy" tradition. I stood at the door, covering my ears and tried not to picture a wayward firebomb crashing into David's face. (I'm really good at worse case scenarios, in case you don't know me.)
David disappeared from view for a while, but eventually returned, beckoning us outside. In a brief ceasefire, we scurried past the lines of red firecrackers and I found myself wishing I had brought my umbrella with me. Then I saw what David had been up to. It seems a few guys were setting off small crackers that you actually hold onto when they go off. The whole shell blasts out of your hands into the air and explodes. And you guessed it, David had made friends with them. I think he earned some serious Chinese cred with these guys that night. They could see he was really pumped about the festivities and they thought it was great. I half expected them to say, "You very Chinese. We are brothers now!" as they clasped their hands on his shoulders in a show of camaraderie. I was offered the chance to hold my very own cracker to fire off, but I declined. I have very bad luck and I figured I was pushing it enough just standing outside. The blasts were lessening now, but still going at a steady pace.
The thrill died down a bit after over an hour of explosions, so we decided to head home. Daniel caught a cab, but David and I walked for a bit, away from the major launch pads onto some semi-quiet streets. The sidewalks were a sea of red paper shreds and empty cardboard shells, but the skies were still filled with sprays of sparks. They remained that way long into the early morning hours. When next we ventured outside, the streets had already been cleared by the few street sweeping folks who had to work on New Year's Eve, but the smell of gunpowder was still in the air. And as we found out later, that was just the first of three major nights of fireworks during the festival, but the other two could never compare to our very first New Year's Eve in China, in the land where fireworks were invented so many centuries ago.