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Yan Shui Fireworks Festival // (c) 2009 Tainan County Government
The tradition started in 1885, when the townspeople of Yan Shui suffered a vicious outbreak of cholera. Things got so bad that they set off firecrackers in hope of summoning the Kuan Kung, the Chinese god of war to come to their aid. The cholera outbreak diminished in the wake of the firecrackers, and an annual tradition was born.
Today, the event has grown into a night of thrills rather than a religious festival, during which hundreds of thousands of bottle rockets are set off in a single night — all of them pointed directly at the crowd. The rockets are launched from beehive-like structures as big as an SUV. The structures contain trays of bottle rockets that, once lit, resemble a screaming, smoking swarm of bees attacking the crowd.
I had been invited to Taiwan to witness the calm and beautiful Taiwan Lantern Festival, which occurs around the same time as the Beehive Rocket Festival. When I was given the chance to check out the Beehive Rocket Festival, however, I jumped at it. An evening of exploding bottle rockets seemed like an exciting finish to a fairly long evening of looking at sedate and colorful lanterns.
Upon arrival in Yan Shui, I was given a plastic jumpsuit to put on. I instantly brushed it aside. There was lots of laughter when those around me realized that I had just been given a garment that would have inevitably melted onto my body once the bottle rockets started flying. I then began adding items to my street clothes in preparation for the fiery ordeal: A ragged bath towel was coiled around my neck. My guide gave me a pair of workman’s gloves and a battered motorcycle helmet, all items that clients could easily gather at local stores.
I joined a crowd of Taiwanese inching their way, shoulder to shoulder, toward a beehive structure loaded with rockets. It was a lot like being directly in front of the stage at a sold-out rock concert, with no room to move. I looked around and noticed that in a crowd of hundreds, there were only a handful of tourists.
A crazed-looking master of ceremonies began to excite the crowd, shouting in Taiwanese, something like, “Are you ready to rumble!” This went on for a few minutes until there was a pregnant pause. Then, the bottle rocket fuses were simultaneously lit. In seconds, the street was enveloped in clouds of thick smoke and a cacophony of explosions. What looked like pieces of fire began zipping en masse toward me. This was about as close to a battle as this non-soldier would ever get. People ran and jostled each other while others hunkered down to see how close they could get to the beehive. I was one of the foolhardy ones.
A rocket exploded against my helmet’s visor, then another. A flaming rocket snagged the collar of my shirt and the cloth instantly began to smolder. The whole process was tremendously exciting. After a minute or two, the rockets died down and there was much relieved laughter in the street.
The ritual was repeated throughout the night, with the crowd learning the location of the next exploding beehive and then rushing several blocks to get there.
The next day, I learned that there had been some serious injuries — not from the bottle rockets, but from the stampeding crowd. Several people had to be rushed to a hospital when a food vendor’s cart filled with hot oil was knocked over.
Would I do it again? In a minute. Actually, I’m surprised the event isn’t better known throughout the world. My guess is that Taiwan isn’t necessarily getting the word out about the event. But that’s also part of the festival’s charm; it’s not a tourist experience, but a local one. As the world shrinks, there are fewer of these local traditions still in play, making them all the more cherished when a traveler is lucky enough to catch one on the fly.
Taiwan Visitors Association213-389-1158www.go2taiwan.net
Tainan County Tourismhttp://tour2.tainan.gov.tw/eng/