After my trip through South East Asia I returned to Taiwan in the middle of February, right after Chinese New Year. There’s quite some confusion about Chinese New Year and its characteristics. First of all, Chinese New Year is every year on a different day (depending on the lunar calendar), but more important Chinese New Year is less of a day like New Year’s Eve but actually set of holidays around a specific day. The whole period of Chinese New Year starts already a couple of weeks prior actual Chinese New Year and different festivities and traditions are meant to happen(f.e. the house is cleaned before the new year and cleaning is not allowed during the the new year). On Chinese New Year itself and the following days people usually celebrate the with their families (Chinese New Year is the time with the highest travel volume in the world), eat incredible amounts of food and light up fireworks. Typical festivities include lantern festivals (15th day of Chinese New Year), dragon dances and much more. From my perspective Chinese New Year is kind of comparable to Christmas in some ways, not by the events or traditions itself but by its characteristics.
Preperations for the Festival
Especially one tradition in a small town caught my attention. The Yanshui Fireworks festival (鹽水蜂炮), notoriously in placing quite well in craziest and dangerous festivals rankings. But what makes this festival so crazy and dangerous? It obviously includes fireworks, but are people like shooting and throwing fireworks at each other? Kind of, but even more intense.
Preperation of the rocket racks
The festival was created by events in the last century. A deadly cholera plague broke out and the inhabitants of the small town were badly hit. After years of suffering, the people had only one possibility left — to ask the god of war — Guan Gong (關公) for help. To attract the god they used huge amounts of fireworks. The festival grew bigger throughout the years and got more intense.
Nowadays, there is especially one thing, which is symbolic for this festival. Huge Racks of bottle rockets (beehive) in the streets of Yanshui are lit up and shot into the crowds in the streets. In a matter of seconds thousands of rockets are flying through the air and usually hit somebody. Getting hit will bring health and fortune and the more hits the better (obviously!). Sounds crazy? It doesn’t only sound crazy. It is.
Young girls dancing on pickup trucks to entertain the god
In the morning of the 15th day of the New Year, we took a train to the town to join a group of people and build some rocket racks and to participate in the festival and improve our health (what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger eh?) and fortune. The traditional racks are made out of bamboo and on each level a specific amount rockets must be put. The rockets itself are quite small and light (not comparable to the ones used on Western New Year’s Eve). During the afternoon we prepared two rockets and also explored the surrounding where the festival already begun (the rockets will be lit up in the night). Even before the rockets are lit up incredible amounts of firecrackers are lit up and people are celebrating in the streets. After the sunset and being interviewed by a Taiwanese TV Channel, we brought the rackets to the center of the festival, where they gonna be lit up later. And then it was time to get ready…
The school gymnasium, where we prepared the rocket rackets
These wagons are pushed/pulled through the streets and people throw occasionally firecrackers under them
Obviously some precautions must be taken and you need to protect yourself against the rockets. Most important is of course a helmet and that you protect your neck and throat with a towel (otherwise rockets might get stuck in your sweater or helmet). To protect my upper body, I wore my thick NTU sweater and of course gloves for my hands. I didn’t protect my legs in a special way, but made sure that no rocket ends up in my shoes. What a glorious outfit for the night.
All dressed up and ready to rumble!
Obviously coolest guy in town
Inofficial Fashion Queen of this Festival
God of War made out of Fire Crackers
The streets were packed with people dressed up in similar ways and everybody was excited and slightly afraid of the upcoming events. All of the city are different racks which are lit up at different times. Right before the rockets started we poured water over our clothes, so that they are less likely to catch fire. When the rockets started to fire, we started doubting if standing in one of the first rows and actually if the whole thing were ones of really our good ideas. And then hell broke loose.
Thousands of rockets flew through the air, everybody was hopping (so that rockets don’t get stuck) and the sound of rockets hitting people was all over the place. Being hit by a rocket doesn’t really hurt. Its only unpleasant if they hit your feet or your hands, hits against the helmet result just in a loud “clong” noise, but don’t hurt. The whole spectacle only lasts for roughly a minute and then you switch to the next place. But also apart from the rockets, fireworks are lit up everywhere. At one place, a Taiwanese asked me, if I want to have firecrackers put onto me and then light them up (firecrackers are conntected to each other). After surviving the rockets, I was ready for even more adventures. This is resulted that I was standing on a street and people were putting firecrackers on me and basically set me on fire. It was intense, really intense. It was incredible loud, for a couple of seconds the only thing I heard and felt were exploding firecrackers on my body.
Happy to have survived this firecracker madness, we slowly went through the streets and watched the festival and the crowds. After a couple of hours and in the middle of the night, we drove exhausted, happy and in one piece to our hostel in Tainan. After a relieving shower, we fell asleep immediately and were ready to begin the second term of studies in Taiwan.