Sunday, January 27, 2008

Fire Crackers and Fire Works

During the Colonial government, no one really paid a great deal of attention to the frequent usage of fire crackers and fire works by the Chinese in Sarawak, and in Sibu in particular. It was no big deal actually.And if the Chinese did let off some fire crackers it was because they had a significant occasion to announce. Life was pretty smooth and traditional.

The control of the usage of these two quintessential exuberant items of celebration came slowly but surely as the Malaysian Government realized the volatile nature of the presence of a little gun powder in them. Firecrackers and fireworks became known as dangerous substances. Perhaps the Chinese were also going overboard in the gargantuan importation of the items. And furthermore the situation was made worst by the huge smuggling activities involving these two items. With political instability and a great deal of suspicion of communist activities in the country it was not surprising that the two items were banned after 1991.

The earliest written information on fireworks in the world dates back to 12th century China. However, it was reported that around 200 BC during the Han Dynasty that they were already used to frighten away evil spirits with their loud sound ("bian pao") and also to pray for happiness and prosperity. How our Chinese ancestors developed fire crackers was not documented but it was a well known fact that Chinese alchemists had long experimented with sulphur, salt petr and charcoal to bring about sudden bursts of bright sparks. Later when they pushed the powder into bamboo , a bang was produced. Thus began the culture of fire crackers.

It was also recorded in Western history that Marco Polo brought back gunpowder, fire crackers and fireworks from China, to Europe and the use of this wonderful "fire chemical" (huo yeok)spread far and wide. Roger Bacon (1214-1294), the famous English thinker wrote about this in code and in fact was afraid that if this knowledge fell into the wrong hands, it could be too dangerous. Hence gun powder was used in European warfare only in 1560's.

As our Chinese ancestors celebrated each new year with a lot of bang, it was no wonder that firework-masters of pyrotechnicians were well-respected for their knowledge and skill to mount dazzling displays of light and sound. A few movies have been made in China featuring some pyrotechnicians.

Every birth, death, wedding, coronation, New year's eve celebration, opening of a business require the lighting of fire-crackers to fend off evil spirits in China and later in Chinese populated areas.

The Chinese use two words, Hot and Noisy, Nouw Yek, to describe a resounding success of a great party. Thus fire crackers and fire works can only help to increase the Heat and the Noise.

Every family during my childhood would prepare a small bundle of fire crackers to be lit at the crack of dawn on the first day of Chinese New Year in the 1950's. This would announce the arrival of the New Year and all children would wake up to don on their new clothes and eagerly await the huge breakfast. And then later, when children were taken to visit their grandparents they would scream with delight when they received their red packets, which were also called "money to bless the new age of the child" (da pui chien).

Somehow the idea of letting off firecrackers at midnight did not appear until the later part of the 1970's. Nowadays, fireworks and firecrackers would be let off at midnight, early in the morning, at the grand dinner time, and at the arrival of VIPS for open houses. So there is really no rule or ritual about when firecrackers are let off. Thus a great deal of its significance and meaningfulness to each individual has been obliviated.

Fire crackers are known as "fire" "canon" (hui pow) whereas fire works are known as "fire" "flower" (hui hua). Thus fireworks have always been used as part of entertainment in China. They do add to the merriment of the occasion.

It was good growing up with the idea that the significant Chinese New Year firecrackers were to be lit by the males of the family and that fireworks at night would add to the family's entertainment. Apart from that, the average Foochows did not really bother about spending a lot of money on these two items.

Keeping up with the Joneses? Definitely not. In those days, most families humbly had only a basic standard packet of firecrackers to let off. The very basic one was called "suo chong" or one set in the traditional standar red wrapping of about a foot long.

So a father would gladly left off suo chong's worth of firecrackers at the birth of a son. When a daughter was born, no fire cracker was let off. Thus sons were greeted at birth and daughters not. Thus, according to my mother, my birth was not greeted.

When dragon and lion dances were performed on the streets, and men and women walked on stilts, bystanders would throw a few pieces of fire crackers at them to add in the merriment. Nothing dangerous would happen then. Because all was for the common good of the celebrants. Well respected and very proper police men would stand at the end of a street on the five foot way and smile. We did not even have crowd control problem!!

Kids played with simple stick fireworks and simple but bigger fireworks were on sale every where. It was fun actually when we enjoyed our freedom in this simple way.

Over indulgence was never part of an ordinary Foochow family in those days. Methodism had indeed trained the early Foochows in the practice of temperance.

(Note: I am indeed saddened to note that fire crackers and fire works have caused a great deal of fires in Sarawak, and children have been badly injured by various explosions. Dangerous substances are available today but it really depends on careful intelligent control and usage. On a serious note, in Malaysia, playing with firecrackers is now illegal as stated from Malaysian Explosive Act which was revised in 1991 as a result of the increasing injuries among children (especially Malay) during Hari Raya festive season. Ironically, the injury cases caused by playing firecrackers continue to increase every year since Malay children turned to home-made firecrackers such as bamboo cannons as alternatives to commercial fireworks)

(Please also note that the pin yin I am using is Foochow, Ming Chiang Pin Yin, my version)

5 memories:

Unknown said...

perhaps another topic you ca wrie is the annual toaist procession in Sibu. These includes floats, mediums in trance, people walking on stilts, etc

Unknown said...

yet another topic you can write is Bukit Aup, the quarry and the picnic site.

Unknown said...

write also about the sandbar

Unknown said...

sandflies!! on the rejang sandbar

I Am Sarawakiana said...

Dear Alison,

Thank you for your exuberance!!

I will definitely plod on.....


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