All across China the final night of the New Year festival is celebrated with fireworks. Not the 24-hour-per day-being-shot-off-in-your-neighborhood-resulting-in-untold-injury variety, but rather the official government-sanctioned type. In Dalian, they’re held down by the ocean and on the right side of town in a spot called Xinghai Square. It’s actually an oval, and hardly a square despite the name. It’s surrounded by fancy high-rise apartments (home to many expatriates who don’t mind commuting 2 hours to work) and some fanciful sculptures of athletes rendered in white metal window screen and representing each of the Olympic sports. Why the Olympic athletes are not across town in Olympic Square is beyond me, perhaps they thought the Olympic rings were enough over there and so shared the wealth by putting the sportsmen over here. In any event, one end of the square has a giant “book” that looks a lot like a skateboard ramp without railings. In the US it would be fenced and closed due to liability. The oval is crisscrossed with sidewalks and short shrubberies and is a popular place to stroll on those stinking hot Dalian summer evenings when you’d rather be sitting under an air conditioner. It all overlooks the ocean and up above on a hill is a replica of the mythical castle at Camelot that is supposedly haunted and currently only houses a shell museum.
Xinghai Square (which means “star sea” by the way) is pretty new. Jiang was telling me the other day that there was some controversy about it when the government wanted to build it as a tourist attraction. It seems that the local folks felt that the prospective area was a lóngmài, 龙脉，or “dragon’s vein” meaning that the topography looks like the body of a dragon and so was not only bad luck but pretty darn dangerous. The government agreed and in order to pacify the faint hearted they set off a lot of fireworks to scare off the ill-will. And so each year they do it a couple more times in case the dragon comes back.
I was invited to a fireworks-party-potluck at my friend’s house as he has an apartment that overlooks Xinghai. The thought was – come by, watch the show from the warmth of the balcony and thus avoid the crowds and the traffic and the freezing on-shore wind. So I left Labor Park and the Lantern Festival and walked back to the car. Jiang told me it was very far away which in China usually means a block or two; the Chinese think that walking is not a good idea. Sure enough it was about ¾ of a block down the road and parked in a place that would have resulted in an immediate tow and impounding in the US. Another interesting thing about this place – you can park anywhere you want including on top of pedestrians without much fear of legal reprisal. We got in and took off for the other side of town. Up among the skyscrapers, the unofficial fireworks were still exploding and showering the people in the park with little burned snowflakes of paper.
Jiang has a friend who happens to be a policeman and he told him that there would be no problem driving right up to my friend’s door which of course turned out not to be true at all – the whole place was barricaded and we found ourselves sitting in a giant traffic jam. Crawling through the darkened streets – few streetlights in this district – I could see people squatting around tiny bonfires on the sidewalk. The fireworks overhead added to the surreal nature of the scene – head and taillights from the traffic, the faces of the people illuminated by the orange glow of the firelight and their backs changing from blue to red to white due to the explosions overhead. Each of these little knots was gathered around their small fire, feeding it with pieces of paper. Jiang explained that they were burning money – the paper burns and the smoke and ashes rise from the flames, bringing the money up to their ancestors in heaven. It seems even the dead need some spending money in the afterlife.
It took an dicey across-traffic u-turn to get me more or less to my friend’s place and once I called for someone to come down and help me find my way through the maze of towers, I left the car and told Jiang I’d text him when I was done. I don’t think I’ve ever shared that instruction with anyone; it goes more or less like this, “Wo text ni.”
The potluck was just about what anyone could hope for on a cold winter’s night in northeast China – ice cold Cokes, duck tongues, spicy Sichuan sausages, little greasy pancakes stuffed with meat, pan-fried tofu, tortilla chips and salsa – the perfect international smorgasbord. The fireworks started promptly at 7:30 and we all crowded out on the balcony to take in the show and to conserve warmth in the face of the icy wind.
Trying to write about a show like this is tough due to a lack of underused superlatives. Suffice it to say that it was like nothing I’ve ever seen in the US. They shoot them off very close to the ground and they shoot them off continuously – the sky is never empty. On the ground, fountains of every imaginable color go on and on and up and up, sometimes swaying from side to side like a hose shooting fire, other times in a snaky pattern and sometimes like giant sparklers. There was so much ground work going on that at one point the shrubbery near the skateboard ramp caught fire. The streets below us were choked with people and cars and at the first report all the latecomers started running towards the park. It seemed like a panic, people running from some imaginable horror down the street. Car alarms were going off up and down the avenue.
The first aerial blast ended with little red and white lanterns slowly floating out to sea and that was followed by a crazy series of explosions that got stranger and stranger as they went on. As I stood and watched my mind kept shifting back and forth from giant light-emitting sea anemones and those pictures we’ve seen from the Hubble Space Telescope with all the thousands of galaxies parading back in time towards the Big Bang – millions of little clusters of light floating in a giant raspberry cloud of interstellar plasma. Sometimes they’d do a change-up and set off only green bursts, then red, and my favorite, white spokes with golden centers. There was so much happening that I felt guilty taking my eyes off of the scene to take pictures. One set of bursts ended with long green snakes floating down, following the earlier set of lanterns out into the bay. The show ended with 5 straight minutes of pure silver stars, so many that you couldn’t see the night sky behind them. And then they stopped going up and the last of the star dust slowly settled down to the ground like fading white curtains.
Thirty straight minutes of noise and light and within fifteen more the streets were clear. Jiang picked me up and we had a slow drive out of town due to the traffic, passing by more people huddled in the dark burning their banknotes. The neighborhood firework shows were still going on in each city block. He told me that the radio had said 200,000 people were there and I was not surprised given what I had seen from up above. I was glad that I had not been down among them. I settled back into my seat and stared out the window as we crept through the nighttime streets.