British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by B.D. Wilson (Administrative Officer, Hong Kong, 1948-83)
Hong Kong Fire Station, 1950s
In the early postwar years, the explosion of fireworks and firecrackers was a familiar sound in Hong Kong. (Fireworks are rockets, fiery rain, etc. Firecrackers are just a bang or succession of bangs.) For Hong Kong Chinese (and Chinese elsewhere), the object traditionally of setting off crackers was to dispel evil spirits and thus pave the way for uninterrupted success. It followed that crackers would usually be lit to celebrate the opening of a new business, births and marriages, and any occasion that was the beginning of a new enterprise. Chinese New Year was always a time for non-stop banging day and night, sounding like a battlefield.

Not content with one or two individual bangs, a big opening could conclude with the stringing together of a long line of crackers drooping down from the end of a bamboo pole leaning at 45 degrees. When the bottom cracker was lit, its explosion would set off the remainder one by one climbing up the string. The ground would then be covered by pieces of red paper (crackers were always coloured red, a lucky colour) and the vicinity wreathed in acrid smoke. The bigger the opening and the more opulent the organiser, the more necessary to demonstrate the fact publicly.

As District Officer in the New Territories, I once attended the opening of a new market on January 21, 1951 (I remember the date as my son was born early on the morning on that day). The inevitable crackering continued for a good 15 minutes. It was almost enough to cause posttraumatic stress.

All this crackering was not without problems. In the hands of children, crackers tended to be a game for making unsuspecting people jump. It was commonplace for lighted crackers to be thrown from an upper balcony on to any passing rickshaw below, to the consternation of the passenger and the rickshaw puller. But by far the biggest problem were frequent injuries to eyes and hands, likewise fires from carelessly lit crackers and rockets. The situation became so serious that when In the 1960's I happened to be posted to the former Secretariat for Chinese Affairs I convened a meeting of the Chief Officer, Fire Brigade, and staff of the Medical and Health Department. They all agreed and pressed for the Government to ban the possession and letting off of all fireworks and firecrackers in Hong Kong. Their manufacture in Hong Kong was already banned as too dangerous: the frequent explosions of fireworks factories in nearby Macao indicated the extent of the clanger.

Hong Kong 1997 Handover Fireworks
When I sent the meeting's conclusions to the Secretariat, I expected they would have no chance of acceptance. It was more than likely that the Secretariat would feel that a ban at this juncture might provoke violent reaction. There had been riots (for other reasons) and there was always the risk that Communist China (hostile in those days) might seize the occasion as an excuse to provoke unrest. I guessed correctly. It was several years before the Hong Kong Government felt the public was ready to accept a ban, sweetened by an official annual fireworks display in the harbour at Chinese New Year. So legally there are no more unauthorised bangs in Hong Kong. (In practice, the odd bang may occur in the New Territories where someone thinks he can get away with it undetected.)

A really big display came on June 30 and July 1, 1997 when Hong Kong was handed over to the Chinese Government. On the first night, Hong Kong put on a grand display of fireworks from vessels moored in the harbour. This was a first class event of star bursts, fiery rain, rockets, etc, giving rise to Cantonese exclamations of "Wah" from the crowds on either side of the harbour. On the following night, there was an equally big, if not bigger, fireworks display in the harbour, put on by the Chinese Government (which owned Hong Kong from that day), enlivened by one of the junks, from which the fireworks were lit, catching fire in a spectacular burst of flame.

There is no indication that the ban has led to an increase in evil spirits in Hong Kong.

Africa Map
1954 Map of Hong Kong
Colony Profile
Hong Kong
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 109: April 2015


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