Adventures in pyromania

So CCTV burned down their own hotel. That has got to look bad in the yearly evaluation. However, here is what I am pretty sure didn’t happen: I am pretty sure that they didn’t torch their own building for the insurance money using the year’s second-biggest night of fireworks as convenient cover. This conclusion rests on no special powers of insight or criminological ability, only on my conviction poor planning and an abundance of colossal fireworks in a dense, urban area is explanation enough. I might concede sloppy construction-site management, bad safeguards and poor materials choice as a contributing factors, but that’s about it.

I am, however,  sad. I have no particular attachment to the Mandarin Oriental tower (or much of the other graceless architectural wank that has sprung up in this town in the past five years), but I expect the fire will lead to new controls on fireworks in Beijing. As wise as that might be from a civil defense point of view, it would dilute one of the Beijing’s great spectacles: the Chinese New Year fireworks inferno.

Fireworks reach a special part of me.That part is the twelve-year-old boy that still lives inside of me somewhere. He’s not gone, he’s just been gradually wrapped under three more decades of of maturity added over the years one thin coating at a time, like a pearl. But he’s still in there. And he still thinks fireworks are a hoot.

Like many small boys, Imagethief went through an extended phase where fire was just about the coolest thing ever, with slot racers and jet airplanes close behind. A scientifically-inclined lad, I pursued a rigorous program of experimentation in which I tested the combustibility and incendiary characteristics of various household objects and substances. Those were good times.

But not for my father. In those days I was living with him in a four-story Victorian in San Francisco’s Castro district that he’d bought in ’74 (for what would now seem like a preposterously small amount of money). 1890s redwood Victorians are notorious tinderboxes. Living in one is about the closest you can get to living in a house built from oil-soaked rags. When the 1906 earthquake struck, most of the damage was caused by the resulting fire ripping through hundreds of wood-frame Victorian houses. And that was when they were relatively new.

So what I thought was good clean, educational fun, my father thought was borderline psychopathy. He may have had a point. Over the years I set my hands on fire with alcohol, singed my eyebrows with gasoline, melted one kitchen trash can, accumulated a ghoulish collection of blisters and retained my eyesight only through, pardon the expression, blind luck.

In fairness, I had a local role model. Not neighborhood toughs lighting trash-can fires, but Walter, a friendly engineer who lived on our block and worked at Sutro Tower, the enormous, three-legged broadcasting antenna that dominates San Francisco from atop Twin Peaks. For many years in my family Sutro Tower was known as “Walt’s Tower”. In fact, I may have thought for some years that that was the official name.

One year for the Fourth of July, which is when one lights fireworks in the United States, Walt put on a show for the neighborhood. He built a large aircraft carrier model out of cardboard, filled it full of small explosives and smoke charges wired to an electrical switch panel, and proceeded to recreate the Battle of Midway. The climactic explosion disintegrated the model and deafened the entire neighborhood. I can picture it with near perfect clarity to this day.

I was also a budding film-maker with a super-8 camera. Suitably inspired, I soon launched an ambitious project to recreate every pyrotechnic effects shot from Star Wars, but at a level of spectacle that I felt George Lucas had lacked the balls and vision to achieve. My Millenium Falcon adventure playset? Blown up. My X-Wing fighter? Incinerated. My painstakingly built The Empire Strikes Back snowspeeder model? Scorched with flaming WD-40. And so on. What would be valuable collectables today became molten puddles and detonated fragments. I have no regrets.

Fireworks (presumably including homebrew exploding aircraft carriers) were illegal to purchase in San Francisco, but could be bought legally a ten minute drive up Interstate 280 in Daly City. The stalls were almost always on the lots of car dealerships, as I recall. Perhaps because these were convenient spaces, or perhaps because you might feel the need to celebrate the purchase of a Dodge Dart with a little something extra. The stalls were plywood shacks that sold a changeless assortment of cheap-and-cheerful pyrotechnics including sparklers, ground flowers and fountain cones.

You could buy the fireworks a la carte, but typically you picked up the biggest boxed assortment you could wheedle your parents into and prayed it didn’t burst into flames in the car. The only drawback was that the boxed sets also included some b-list stuff like Piccolo Petes (all sound, no flame) and those risible charcoal “snakes” that expanded magically from black pellets into, um, a pile of ash. We conducted some experiments trying to launch Piccolo Petes like rockets, but after one blew up on the pad we suspended the program.

There were limits to what you could buy, however. For one thing, no bottle rockets. In fact, anything with a projectile component appeared verboten. I recall Roman Candles as being very hard to get. This seems pointless in retrospect since I have clear memories of engaging in totally legal model rocketry at about the same time, using much larger and potentially more destructive projectiles. This lesson that was etched in my mind for all time when (Star Wars again — this was the late ’70s after all) my classmate Andy Filler’s Estes X-Wing encountered guidance problems off the pad and nearly gave the entire Marin Country Day School class of 1981 a haircut. That was just one of several grand failures on our school model rocketry day.

In practice, the projectile ban simply tempted inventive lads to test the strength of their throwing arms with pyrotechnics never meant to go airborne. It may be called a “ground flower”, but it makes a hell of an impressive sight when it ignites in mid-air. It also, like Andy Filler’s X-Wing, has erratic and unpredictable ballistic characteristics. One fourth of July I accidentally lofted one right into the middle of a bunch of beer-drinking adults. It was like dropping a rattlesnake into the hot tub. Liberty Street’s own Nolan Ryan and his flaming fastball were promptly benched.

Firecrackers were also illegal to purchase, along with their larger cousins, cherry bombs and the dreaded M-80, a hand-vaporising bastard with military antecedents and sixty times the punch of a garden-variety firecracker. Thus, in an early brush with Chinese globalization, my experiments were heavily dependent upon the availability of black-market Chinese fireworks in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Even for a small boy it was easy to go down to China Town and buy bricks of 1280 firecrackers and packs of bottle rockets sold out of the backs of Datsun 280-Zs by skinny, dangerous looking Hongkie kids for not too much money.

Those black market firecrackers were grist for many of my experiments. They also went off many times in my hand (which leaves you with a characterestic numbed burning sensation in your fingertips and a sheepish expression) and once right in my face (stunned amazement), so it’s probably a good thing we didn’t have access to anything bigger.

If only I had known what real Chinese firepower was. Imagine the fiendish child that I was with access to real Chinese fireworks…

To understand the gravity of that bit of conjecture, you need to understand the nature of fireworks that can be had at retail in China during the Spring Festival. As in Daly City the booths spring up seasonally, gaudy and colorful, their wares piled high alongside. And what wares! In China any drunk fool with a few hundred RMB can buy a colorful box the size of a beer keg that includes twelve or eighteen thudding mortar tubes that launch starbursts that would look good at the Pro Bowl. Imagine legalized, recreational white phosphorus. The first time some friends of mine set one of these off in China I thought the cops would come for us.

And there is a kaleidoscope of options on down from there. When you read about a Chinese fireworks factory exploding (as they do), it’s not the fwisssh….phut! stuff that gets sent to America that does the damage. It’s the high-grade domestic product that levels the village and kills the livestock. I admit one must have different expectations for China. Nevertheless, having grown up in San Francisco, where fireworks are controlled, and then lived a decade in Singapore, where private fireworks are banned, it staggers me to this day what you can buy legally in China. I don’t even want to imagine what’s available on the local black market. Stand back and don your radiation goggles.

So we get treated to quite a show during the fifteen days of lunar new year. Everybody and their maid buys piles of fireworks. On key days–new year’s eve, the lantern festival–there are queues at the stands. This being China, it’s imperative that your Golden Lotus Atomic Flower Detonator be bigger and more impressive than your neighbor’s Mighty Dragon Lucky Supernova. Or, if you can’t beat him on size, counter with volume and pepper him with a vast battery of the smaller stuff.

All of this would be chaos enough if the Chinese set off their fireworks with any sort of rational planning as to safe areas, minimum distances from nearby structures and crowd control. And in fairness some of the bigger apartments maintain pretty sound operations, with barricades, fire extinguishers at the ready and people stationed on the roofs to watch for embers (an essential precaution apparently not adopted at the Mandarin Oriental).

But in much of Beijing, and presumably in most other Chinese cities, that isn’t how it works. Many of the fireworks, possibly most of them, are detonated in the narrow warrens of old neighborhoods where sound is trapped, star-burst fragments ricochet off of windows and the general sense of bedlam is amplified far beyond the limits of common sense. Now that is good fun, and if you ever have the opportunity to wander through such a neighborhood at the height of fireworks season I heartily recommend you take it. The noise will feel like someone has painlessly run a large metal pole through your chest and is shaking it vigorously. (However it may also feel like someone has very painfully run knitting needles through your eardrums and is shaking them, too.) Heavy metal bands can only fantasize about this kind of sound and fury.

Even in the large courtyard of our apartment, where fireworks are not permitted, the sound is powerful. A rolling tide of detonations that sloshes back and forth between the slab sides of the surrounding towers, the echo creating a distinct basso triplet.WHUMPWhumpwhump! One, two, three. Often I’ll just stand in the center of the courtyard and listen to that glorious sound. I’ve often wished I could record it in a way that would do it justice.

One thing I’ve never witnessed in China is malicious use of fireworks. I’m sure it happens. People –teenagers especially– throw firecrackers at each other. They aim mortars through the superintendent’s window. They blow up small animals. That kind of behavior must be universal. Indeed, sombody scandalously blew up a popular cat at a university in Hebei recently. But I’ve never seen this kind of thing myself during the festivities in Beijing. It’s always been very family-oriented and congenial.

I have, however, seen plenty of garden-variety recklessness and stupidity, reminding me of my own past as a garden-variety reckless youth with a fire fascination. Every year fires break out and the emergency rooms stand ready for the fingerless masses. A friend of mine once videotaped a guy accidentally blowing his hand apart. Not something you’ll put on YouTube for mom to see. Alcohol, carelessness and really large fireworks mix badly. The police plaster the town with safety advisories and guidelines in the weeks leading up to new year, and the period when fireworks are allowed in the city is rigidly controlled. But it’s crazy nevertheless.

The rules for fireworks in Beijing have ebbed and flowed over the years. But I wonder if this week’s huge CCTV disaster, itself an apparent product of garden-variety recklessness at an institutional level, will mean another great ebbing. Will the city government finally decide that unfettered pyromania is inconsistent with the development of a dense metropolis of 15 million people? It wouldn’t surprise me.

And that would probably be the sensible thing to do. The twelve-year-old boy inside me, the one who still runs to the window for the fireworks and wanders the besieged streets in glee, would be sad to see that happen. But, then, he’s never had to apologize for burning down a new hotel.

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