LIUYANG, China – The Lunar New Year means big business for fireworks sellers like Liu Zhicheng.
Liu is a wholesaler in this industrial city known as China’s pyrotechnics capital, home to about a 1,000 companies churning out Roman candles, spinners, bottle rockets, sparklers and more. Some of his best-sellers are red firecrackers the size of dynamite sticks. Called Thunder Kings, the noisemakers are so powerful they could easily trigger a block of car alarms.
A few miles away in the showroom of a manufacturer called Dancing Fireworks, the staff proudly shows off its top seller: a 66-pound cardboard box packed with 230 projectile tubes called Tonight Is So Beautiful. The $200 package fires red and green bursts several stories high.
“Every time we have customers visit, we explain this is a must-have,” said Tang Caiying, a salesclerk.
No place on Earth loves fireworks more than China. The country has been crazy for huapao since a Chinese monk named Li Tian invented firecrackers in the 5th century. An estimated 90 percent of the globe’s pyrotechnics are designed and produced in China, most of them here in Liuyang. The noisemakers have become an essential part of Chinese tradition. Popular as gifts, they’re used to ward off evil spirits and usher in good fortune.
The difference between now and Li Tian’s day is the sheer firepower of the displays. China’s rising wealth has boosted demand for ever more spectacular explosives. Ordinary citizens, including children, can buy fireworks here that in the United States would be off limits to everyone but pyrotechnic professionals.
The result is some truly epic homemade fireworks shows in China, particularly around Chinese New Year. Starting Sunday, China will erupt in a combustible, two-week frenzy to ring in the Year of the Snake.
“It’s just beautiful and awesome. It’s something people in the U.S. don’t have a clue about because it just seems so unreal,” said Terry Winkle, a fireworks maker from Rochester, Minn., who spends most of his year working with factories in Liuyang.
The downside is the carnage. Building fires, skin burns, mangled digits and deaths come with the territory. Recently a truck carrying fireworks exploded on an elevated highway in central Henan province, killing 26 people. The blast toppled a section of the roadway about the length of a football field. Authorities say the fireworks were unlicensed and transported by untrained handlers — part of a shadow network of illegal manufacturers and sellers that spring up during the new year crush.
Even Liuyang’s own fireworks museum caught fire in November. Locals were quick to attribute the accident to some smoldering incense. The fire was put out in about 10 minutes with no major damage. But folks here are keenly aware of the risks.
“This is dangerous work,” said Zhong Ziqi, Dancing Fireworks’ founder and chairman. “It’s very easy for things to explode.”
Fireworks were a lot tamer in the late 1980s when Zhong was just entering the business as an apprentice. A big showstopper then was a $20 fountain, a tubular device that sits on the ground and shoot streams of sparks about 10 feet in the air.
Zhong, a former soldier, opened his first factory in 1988 after studying the trade for just a year. He soon realized how much he had to learn. Within just a few months a storage area at his plant loaded with half-finished products exploded and killed four workers. A shaken Zhong quit and launched a wholesale company.
“That accident was a tragic lesson,” said Zhong, 57.
But Zhong would return to manufacturing in 1996 after being persuaded to privatize a struggling state-owned fireworks mill. A shareholder named it Dancing Fireworks to evoke their effects.
The company quickly built a name for itself and was asked to put on a fireworks show over the Bund, a waterfront area in Shanghai, in 1999 for a global forum of world leaders. With dignitaries including Chinese President Jiang Zemin and U.S. President Bill Clinton looking on, the electrical ignition system suddenly malfunctioned. Zhong ordered his staff to light cigarettes and run down the line lighting fuses.
“It was like war, but that was our big break,” said Zhong, whose company would later be hired to put on shows at the Shanghai Expo and Beijing Olympic Games. He said annual sales are about $48 million.
In recent weeks, Dancing’s 1,600 employees have been hustling to finish orders for Chinese New Year. About a third of the company’s revenue comes over the holiday fortnight. Clustered in small workshops, many dug like bomb shelters into the red clay hills as a precaution against explosions, workers carefully filled products with so-called flash powder, a cousin to gunpowder that produces a burst of light and smoke when ignited.
Safety slogans abound on the factory grounds: “Safety and quality are the lifelines of company survival and development.”
About one-third of Dancing’s revenue is export sales. U.S. consumers can buy a less-potent version of the Chinese multi-shot fireworks trays, known as cakes, with names like Eagle King, Skulls & Bones and Iron Pyro.
Foreign buyers regularly visit Dancing to order custom pyrotechnics for professional fireworks shows. The firm’s technicians can fashion all manner of effects including comets, five-point stars and tear drops. Colors run the gamut. But not everything is possible.
“People tell me they don’t want smoke,” Eva Zhong, the English-speaking daughter of Zhong Ziqi, and head of the company’s export department. “We can do less smoke, but not no smoke. These are fireworks.”
Cities and villages across China will soon be shrouded in smoke. Come New Year’s Eve, the nation’s skies will crackle with a fusillade of flashing light as tens of millions of Chinese light their arsenals.
The holiday period is the only time each year that major urban areas like Beijing allow fireworks in their city centers. But air quality has been so lousy lately that the Beijing Office on Fireworks and Firecrackers (yes, there is one) has urged residents to tone it down.
The truck blast in Henan has also sparked a crackdown on unlicensed vendors and transportation. Dancing owner Zhong said authorities had prevented more than 100 trucks filled with fireworks from leaving Liuyang because they weren’t properly sealed to absorb an explosion.
“They never strictly enforced this before,” he said.
Tightening supplies mean higher prices at many of the country’s pop-up retail stands.
In Beijing, Gao Yumei, 31, and her son, Zhao Long, 14, bought $30 worth of mini-firecrackers, half a dozen Roman candles and a bunch of sparklers. It’s more than she wanted to spend, but Gao said it was important to carry on the tradition.
Still, she said she’d keep watch over Zhao when he set them off this weekend.
“He looks forward to this every year,” Gao said. “But I’m scared of them. I’m very worried he’ll injure himself.” L