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City’s gradual dousing of long fireworks tradition may avoid sparks of anger
By Doug Young

I’LL finish out the Year of the Horse with a bang, by touching on the explosive topic of fireworks and their rapidly evolving role in both our city and, more broadly, in Chinese culture.

Perhaps it’s more appropriate to say we’ll end the year on a whimper rather than a bang, as the latest rules issued by our city are rapidly clamping down on the centuries-old Chinese tradition of lighting off firecrackers to welcome in the Lunar New Year.

I’m certainly not the first to write about this topic, and I should begin by disclosing my own view that the use of firecrackers by individuals should be prohibited completely in a big city like Shanghai. My stance may seem a bit curmudgeonly, and I’ll openly admit I always dread the approach of the New Year because it’s nearly impossible to sleep on the Lunar New Year’s Eve.

But in all honesty, the list of reasons that big cities like Shanghai should severely curtail or even ban the use of firecrackers by individuals seems to grow with each passing year. These last few years have seen fireworks vilified for the heavy air pollution they cause.

But even before that, safety was already a regular concern because mishandled and poor-quality fireworks often lead to numerous injuries and accidental fires. And then there’s the massive trash that such fireworks create, leaving tons of smoldering red paper all over our streets.

All that said, I’d like to commend Shanghai for its intelligent approach to gradually restricting the use of firecrackers, rather than imposing an outright ban. Such a tack is like weaning someone from an addiction, or in this case a long-term habit, rather than forcing him to stop immediately.

That’s not to say there’s no value to making noise and having fun to welcome in the new year, but rather that perhaps this kind of phase-out approach will give people some time to find new ways to observe old traditions.

As the Year of the Sheep fast approaches, the headlines have been filled almost daily with a long list of new steps the city is taking to curb the use of firecrackers. Among other things, the city has cut the number of permits by about 30 percent this year, meaning only about 700 vendors will be licensed to sell fireworks.

The city has also cut the number of available fireworks by half, meaning only 150,000 boxes will be sold this year. Vendors will also be limited to selling for a 2-week period, including in suburban areas where year-round sales were previously allowed. The city has also added several major streets to the list of places where firecrackers will be banned outright.

This gradual clampdown on fireworks looks quite similar to what Shanghai has done with live chicken sales, which were a major source fueling the bird flu outbreak nearly two years ago. Since then, the city has gradually limited the number of markets that can sell live birds, and now bans all sales at the peak of flu season between March and May.

The limits on live chicken sales and firecrackers have both generated heated debate, with some arguing for the preservation of traditions while others say such practices are outdated and should be abandoned.

The outdated argument is certainly a strong one, since big cities like Shanghai were non-existent in the era when firecrackers and many of China’s culinary practices first appeared.

Pollution, density now issues

China of that era was an agricultural society with widely dispersed population. In that era, the noise issue and danger of big accidents were less problematic due to less dense population. Likewise, the absence of refrigerators in that era meant it was safest to kill animals just before cooking them to avoid possible dangers of food poisoning.

A good comparison from the West would be Christmas trees, which were traditionally lit up with burning candles in the pre-electric era. Such a tradition became highly dangerous with rapid urbanization, and even the electric lights used on most trees today still occasionally cause fires due to faulty wiring.

I remember a brief period in the late 1980s when China briefly experimented with a fireworks ban. Such a ban was already quite difficult to enforce, and widespread criticism of its authoritarian and culture-bashing overtones led to a retraction of the prohibition just a year or two later.

Realization that such sudden change takes time is most likely the reason behind Shanghai’s more gradual approach to limiting fireworks, which seems like a smarter way to tackle the issue.

At the end of the day, the city needs to find a way to maintain public safety and sanitation, and also let a few of us sleep, while allowing everyone else to celebrate and have fun to welcome the arrival of a new year.

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