You can probably guess, based on my previous post, that I like fireworks, but this wasn’t always the case. My earliest memory of this kind of thing was as a four-year-old on Bonfire Night (5th November) in 1950. My father had bought a box of fireworks, but I was too scared to go into the garden to see them being set off at close range and merely watched through the living room window.
However, throughout the 1950s my father always bought a big box of fireworks for Bonfire Night, and I gradually became more confident about watching—I even lit a few myself. I was never too keen on the ones with pretty colours though; I always preferred the ones that went off with a bang, the louder the better. By the early 1960s, the bangs were no longer loud enough, and I decided that I could do better myself.
After I’d splattered the ceiling of the living room with chemicals and burned a hole in the fireside rug, I was exiled to the garden shed, which became my own laboratory. All the neighbours knew what I was up to, because every so often they’d hear an extremely loud explosion, look out of their rattling windows to see a huge white mushroom cloud erupting over the shed and exclaim: “Dennis is at it again!” Or words to that effect.
In the current climate, amid fears about terrorism, it would be irresponsible of me to provide any further details. Suffice it to note that I’m writing about an altogether more innocent age, when a schoolboy making his own fireworks attracted no more than amused tolerance from the adults in the neighbourhood. Nowadays, a visit from the police would be the least I could expect.
After I left home in 1964, I paid no attention to either Bonfire Night or fireworks until Chinese New Year in 1982. This was the first year for what has now become a tradition—a fireworks display over Hong Kong’s harbour. I was working at the local Outward Bound School at the time, and the school had a sailing ship that could carry up to forty trainees plus crew. The director decided that it would be a good idea to take the ship into the harbour to watch the display, so we all had a grandstand view, complete with buffet supper and drinks. I’ve rarely had a better view since.
This scenario was repeated in 1983—as a treat for hard-working and underpaid staff—but with the appointment of a new and corporate-minded director in 1984, staff were no longer welcome: the ship still sailed round to the harbour, but now the passengers were local taipans and other dignitaries in a position to help the school. For many years after this, I never bothered to attend the displays, mainly because I didn’t fancy having to contend with the large crowds that gather on the waterfront. I didn’t start going again until about ten years ago and have missed only two displays since.
During this period, I’ve usually watched from somewhere along the Kowloon waterfront. The best viewing position is the walkway in front of the New World Centre (now being demolished because it was built at a time when there was a height restriction on building in Kowloon) and Intercontinental Hotel, but as mentioned in my previous post, you have to get there two hours beforehand or the police will not let you through. However, one year we watched from an apartment overlooking the harbour—it was being rented by a colleague of my wife. Not as much fun, but at least I could watch with a gin and tonic in my hand.
Another year, the cloud ceiling was so low that all the high shells were exploding in the clouds and therefore out of sight. This was the reason for missing the show in 2007: we didn’t bother to go, because the clouds were down to about 300 feet. We also missed the fireworks in 2005, because we were in New Zealand. In fact, we were there to evaluate that country as a place to live; that we eventually chose to return to Hong Kong was heavily influenced by the comments of a TV news reporter, who described Chinese New Year as “the world’s biggest party” (it isn’t a party) and Hong Kong in the morning of New Year’s Day as “like a ghost town” (it is in extremely bad taste to talk about ghosts at this time of year). We really didn’t fancy living in a country whose news media fed its citizens such ignorant drivel.
This year, I watched from the roof of the Royal Garden Hotel with a friend from Sydney who was a guest at the hotel. It wasn’t the best view I’ve had over the years, but the hotel had thoughtfully set up stereo speakers to relay the music with which the fireworks are electronically synchronized, which is broadcast on local radio and which added another dimension to the experience. It was mostly jaunty Chinese classical music, with one slow piece and a jazzed-up version of La Rejouissance from Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks.
You might be wondering how slow music fits something as fast and explosive as a fireworks display, but the designers had come up with fireworks that resembled waterfalls as they fell slowly back to earth: these were just one of five or six new effects that were integrated into the display this year. Others included two-stage starbursts that bore an uncanny resemblance to flowers and ones that featured spoked wheels or contained smiley faces.
At the end of the display, my Australian friend, who has seen Sydney’s new year fireworks quite a few times, said that it was the best fireworks display he’d ever seen, and I had to agree. I couldn’t help but think that the degree of control that the designers had over the raw power of the display, together with the way it was coordinated with the music, moved it from the merely spectacular to the truly awesome (using this word as it should be used). But with the Chinese and fireworks, I expect nothing less.