Cover

Fireworks in China, maybe not

Shruti Bajpai | Updated on October 26, 2019 Published on October 25, 2019

Let’s hear the festivities: Guo Nian — better known as the Chinese New Year to the outside world — is the country’s equivalent of Deepavali   -  REUTERS/ CHINA STRINGER NETWORK

‘Made in China’ is writ large upon the Deepavali that India celebrates. But it’s difficult to find fireworks on Chinese soil

The whole of India — and some other parts of the world — had its eyes on the sandy beaches of Mamallapuram at the beginning of the month. There, against the scenic backdrop of some of the country’s most stunning temples, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The delegation from China left for home soon after, but China’s presence lingers in India. In fact, it is at its brightest — with Made in China etched large on Deepavali markets all over the country.

China’s foothold in India’s festive market began many years ago with the imports of firecrackers. Decorative string lights from Shenzhen and adjoining cities in southern China followed and the pool rapidly expanded to include electric diyas, tea lights, lanterns and even poly-resin avatars of Hindu gods such as Ganesha.

On a quick visit to India last week, I stopped by the neighbouring Deepavali market in suburban Mumbai. Wispy lanterns in pastel shades swayed in the unexpectedly pleasant post-shower afternoon breeze. I walked under a dazzling canopy of Chinese-made LED string lights that covered the length of the congested bazaar.

Satyam, the talkative owner of one of the stalls at the market, said that Chinese-made Deepavali “maal” was largely limited to electric lights and lanterns this year. He then pointed to the metal candleholders, jazzy rangoli stickers and rows of miniature Lakshmi-Ganesha idols. The parts of some of the non-clay idols — in glass and metal — as well as the decorative items were imported from China and Thailand.

On the other side of the road, Heeramani Mane invited me to choose from the assortment of diyas in bright colours at her stall. “These are all made in India,” she announced. “No Chinese mitti,” she added, laughing at her own joke.

A few stalls down the line, Girish was setting up his display of crackers and lights. He kept a watchful eye on the impending bout of unseasonal rains as he arranged boxes of sparklers, rockets, fountains and the deadly “atom bomb”, each of which bore the unmistakable “Made in Sivakasi” stamp. If there were any Chinese-made fireworks in the market, they were not within plain sight. With more than a week to go before Deepavali, the fireworks display was expected to gain momentum. Sooner or later, the Chinese variety would find its way in through the grey channel. It always does.

Guo Nian — better known as the Chinese New Year to the world — is the country’s equivalent of Deepavali. Like India, huapao or firecrackers are an integral part of Chinese traditions, usually set off to mark the onset of the new year. Legend has it that the loud bang of firecrackers wards off evil spirits. Little wonder then, that China is the world’s largest manufacturer of fireworks and Liuyang, a picturesque city in Hunan province, is the fireworks capital of the world.

Yet, my attempts over the last couple of years to source a few harmless sparklers and a few fountains to complete my expat Deepavali experience in Beijing have failed miserably. “Bu keyi!” I was told everywhere I went looking: “Not allowed”, when I asked around the neighbouring village, in a desperate attempt to relive the Deepavali of my childhood.

The government has banned the sale and use of firecrackers in 400 cities across the country. As with most of the laws that govern this country, there are no exceptions to the rule, not even during Chinese New Year. Muffled sounds of fireworks can be heard in Beijing during the festival and during groundbreaking ceremonies at construction sites, but these are well outside the city limits.

The infamous Beijing air quality that was once a huge point of concern in the country and a much talked about issue in Western media has been systemically cleaned up over the years, through a series of measures that clamped down on coal-producing units, restricted car usage in the city and the systematic shutdown of polluting factories outside of the city. This year, Beijing is reported to be on track to drop out of the list of top 200 most polluted cities in the world, an extraordinary turnaround in a short span of time.

Most people in China, especially the young, seem to have accepted that the fun of fang bianpao (lighting firecrackers), is an archaic ritual is outweighed by the damage to the environment. They are happy to let go. There are only occasional murmurs of discontent on social media close to the New Year.

It is ironic then that the country that has managed to effectively implement the ban on fireworks in more than two-thirds of its cities still remains the largest exporter of fireworks in the world.

The author is based in Beijing

Published on October 25, 2019
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor