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Happy Chinese New Year folks! The year of the pig is starting on Tuesday. The last time it was the year of the pig, I was in China where it was an explosion of fun, chaos, red and people. It was like the final scene in a dystopian movie with each car park, street corner and balcony vomiting pyrotechnics. In every country a decade or two ago there was less focus on health and safety and a more relaxed attitude to burning people alive in a rainbow explosion.
My childhood Guy Fawkes celebrations were usually spent with a couple of families at whichever farm happened to have a tree that could be the basis of a bonfire. Children ran with abandon in the darkness throwing rocks at the fire and at each other. Because it was the ’80s, nobody worried what anyone under 10 was doing as long as they weren’t interrupting the conversation. My father’s best friend amused himself by setting off Tom Thumbs behind people and roaring with laughter at the resulting shrieks. Growing up in the pre-safety-conscious era should have inured me from any fireworks related emotional trauma that Chinese New Year brought, but this was not the case. Because Chinese people have had several centuries of any and every important event and family celebration being accompanied by fireworks, there was a certain relaxed attitude to setting skyrockets alight that I found terrifying.
The memory of the previous year of the pig celebration when I travelled with my friend Amy to her hometown village in Sichuan still fills me with residual anxiety. Amy bought fireworks as soon as we got off the plane in Chengdu and stuffed them into a taxi. With me.
This was not like buying fireworks in New Zealand where you get a whole bunch of dinky little packets. Amy had an enormous drum filled with TNT. One Firework. One huge firework. I sat beside it and together we bounced and crashed around in the back seat as we drove with more focus on speed and less on safety up a winding mountain lane. I clutched it and tried to prevent too much whacking against the window, with our mutual Australian friend Dave and I repeatedly requesting the driver to exercise a little more caution on account of the possibility of blowing up the car.
Dave and I became more concerned as we sped through sparks shooting in arcs over the road as EVERY SINGLE PERSON in Sichuan let off industrial-strength fireworks in all directions. Amy and the taxi driver drove with the windows down and cackled at the stupid, overly worried foreigners. Dave had unbound panic in his eyes and I thought about suicide vests as I tried to secure the bouncing firework beast with the seatbelt. Amy smoked cigarettes with a carefree attitude to windswept embers and did impressions of us as the taxi driver provided an appreciative and amused audience.
When we got out of the car, it turned out our giant firework was not so giant. There were others that definitely would not fit in the back seat of a taxi.
"Hey!" Amy would gesture to a small child who would scamper over. Taking a final drag on her cigarette she would pass it over to a 7-year-old who would skip to a 44-gallon drum of explosives and light the fuse with the cigarette. Dave and I shared a "surely this is not cool" look, then realising that no-one else thought this was a biggie, we shrugged as another atomic mushroom-sized fireball lit the sky up. Most people thought our uptight attitude was hilarious. None more so than Amy, who after a few bottles of Tsingtao threw firecrackers after us as we ran screeching ungracefully.
"It’s not funny Amy!" I yelled in my best I-am-actually-very-annoyed voice.
"No. Very Funny," Amy corrected me as she threw more explosions in my direction. As with the rest of the world, my Chinese friends have assured me things have changed in China now, with a focus on keeping all the skin on your face instead of shooting part of it into the sky with a cheerful bang.
On Tuesday, I will be taking my daughter down to the Chinese garden for some more subdued fun to welcome a new year of the pig. Even though it is definitely less exciting, I am grateful for introduction of OSH regulations and our world’s new-found timidity and reluctance to lose an arm in a pyrotechnic incident.
Happy year of the pig, Dunedin!