The Netherlands is part of what can be called ‘the European war-exempted-zone’. Firework is a popular craze here from 10 in the morning December 31 to 2 at night January 1, to drive out the old year. 60 to 70 million Euro value of explosives goes up in the air, 200 to 300 eye operation as a result, 20 to 30 blind, hardly any dead. Many youngsters do test their ammunition before hand, especially near my house next top a night outgoing district. Most of the Dutch have no direct war or terrorism connotation when they here a big bang nearby in these last days of the year, though the Party for the Animals and Green Left have called for a total ban on private/personal firework use.
Enjoying explosives is a real LUXURY as can be learned from the United Nations bulletin ‘ExplosiveWeapons.info’ published by the United Nations Disarmament Research Institute in Geneva. The “End of Year Explosive Violence Review” is summing it up: “Sadly, in over 70 countries, explosive weapons have caused severe harm to individuals and communities and furthered suffering by damaging vital infrastructure. But recognition is growing that the use of explosive weapons in places where civilians live, work or gather constitutes a serious humanitarian problem that needs to be addressed.”
Not only in the Netherlands, there are initiatives to come to a ban on firework as a citizen’s demand, in all parts of the world similar initiatives have been taken, Philippines, New Zealand, Great Britain, South Africa, Italy, the United States, which can be read about in detail on the web site of stop-fireworks.org, Some initiatives propose alternative forms of New Year celebration like in the USA to bang drums instead of firing explosives…
When living in Amsterdam in the early seventies next to the small Chinese quarter, still growing at that time around the Binnen Bantammerstraat, there was always a big display of Chinese fireworks by the restaurant holders in that street on Western calendar New Years Eve. The Chinese had these long rolls of big firecrackers, one after another, we called them ‘pakora’s’, sometimes hung from the top of the house fronts or all along the street, twelve and more meter long. There was also the swaying around of firework on ropes within a dense circle in a crowd of people, the first ranks shrieking back each time a mass of glowing and sputtering ‘saltpeter’ passed their faces. The next morning the whole Chinese area looked like covered with a deep soft red carpet, with eager youngsters rummaging around to fire the ones that failed to explode during midnight. We had a squatted neighbourhood action centre straight next to this scene and always did throw new year midnight parties there. The photographer of this picture Koen Wessing was one of the supporters of our action group and it was only today I discovered this photograph by him, while doing a little research for this article.
The first part of this year I lived and worked for half a year in Hong Kong and on the first day of Chinese New year I was waiting for a massive popular display of fire work in my neighbourhood close to the popular district of Shek Kip Mei in Kowloon. To my surprise nothing happened at all, the only fireworks visible were the ones on the television set. The city panorama below my apartment – situated on a rock with a wide view – remained completely empty. It was only later I learned that all firework in the then Crown Colony of Hong Kong of the Brits had been forbidden in 1967, a year that almost saw a Cultural Revolution Rising in Hong Kong by local Maoists. Gunpowder of firework had been used in that turbulent year to make street bombs that would be exploded to raise the level of unrest in the city. That firework ban has remained in force ever since, with only some exceptions for the inhabitants of Hong Kong’s New territories villages during their special traditional spring and summer festivals.
When studying more of the history of the conflict in 1967 (“Hong Kong’s watershed: the 1967 riots” by Gary Ka-wai Cheung; 2009) I learned that some of those street bombs had warning signs on them (like “compatriots do not come close”) when planted, but the message was written in Chinese characters only. Most of these bombs were primitive home-made contraptions on the basis of gunpowder taken from firework stock (others used gunpowder used by fishermen). Firework bombs were most often thrown directly at colonial targets, mostly police stations and of the ones planted in the street many were fake bomb, just to “fire” social unrest. During almost a year 8352 suspected bombs had been planted of which only 1420 proved to be “genuine”, 1167 targeted the colonial police force, 253 were detonated in an uncontrolled way. The bombs hailed by the underground Maoist Communist Party of Hong Kong as a form of “People’s Warfare” could not fail to also hit ‘the people’ themselves and when in August 1967 a street bomb killed an eight year girl and a two year old boy, the public reaction backfired at the anti-colonial insurgents. An existing relative sympathy under broad layers of the population for the cause of these left wing revolutionaries fighting the colonial power, was progressively lost. The disruption of the daily life in the colony by the firework bombs -which were in a military sense minor weapons – had been significant. Hindering traffic and most of all having a psychological impact. At a certain moment during that year the British governor even worked secretly on a new emergency evacuation plan, for the non Chinese population, just in case. In the end it proved that the local underground Communist Party had for a great deal acted on their own and failed to generated the needed support from party authorities in Bejing. Mainland China was – at that time – too much in a political turmoil with lots of fractional infighting, to allow itself to take the small Colony of Hong Kong by force. Neo-colonial Hong Kong, “the goose with the golden eggs” was of more importance to the Mainland China than a banking, manufacturing and trading centre, which would certainly collapse after a forceful take-over.
Till this very day, the firework bombs remain a legacy associated with the Communist Party of Hong Kong, that, though not formally part of the restraint political landscape of Hong Kong (see “Underground front: the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong” by Christine Loh; 2010), is the central force of power in what is now The ‘Special Administrative Region of China Hong Kong’ (SAR Hong Kong). The highest governmental functions in SAR Hong Kong are reserved for (secret) Communist Party members only. As the history of this central core of Hong Kong power remains covered in secretive haze, debatable events in its history remain a subject which is mostly avoided. Who – for instance – visits the Hong Kong Historical Museum will find just one or two photographs of the 1967 struggle with a superficial caption. In popular memory though, the firework bombs and the effects of some indiscriminate targeting of the primitive firework bombs from 1967, lingers on.
Saltpeter (potassium nitrate) is a substance that forms through the decomposition of organic materials, a whitish salt like material since long known for its quality of burning fiercely even in non favourite circumstances for fire. We know that Taoist alchemists in China were experimenting with it already in the 8th century in their quest for life prolonging elixirs. While trying out all kind of combinations of substances and materials, they discovered the explosive properties of mixing saltpeter with sulphur and charcoal. The mix we call now in English ‘gunpowder’ (‘buskruit’ in Dutch *). Aside from try-outs to swallow small quantities as a medicine, the aesthetic and ceremonial qualities of the substance were discovered and all kind of ways to fire it for spectacular display were developed. Spring, Autumn and New Year festivals with their staged dances of mythical animals like dragons and lions, were amplified with display of fireworks. Bamboo tubes were used at first, which lead also to experiments to use the explosive mix for war purposes. First devices were spears with at the end bamboo tubes filled with gunpowder that were directed at an enemy during a battle. Soon more elaborate war use was found by finding out the propulsive qualities of certain mixes that could drive out one or more arrows from wooden containers. Closing up such bamboo containers would give yet another effect of bursting wood fibre and so also what we call now a grenade, has been invented over one thousand years ago.
Healing, celebration and warfare all used the same substance: gunpowder. Moments of celebration punctuated by explosions, but also new powerful bangs of explosions on the battlefield, which before was less loud with just clanging of lances, swords, shields and the shouts of warriors. Up to this very day the awe of a big bang may be just a carrier of celebration, but once someone has witnessed an explosion as a part of an act of terrorism or war, the aesthetic appreciation of a firework spectacle may be lost – for her or him – forever.
* Etymology of the Dutch word for ‘gunpowder’:
buskruit zn. ‘explosief poeder’
Mnl. bussen cruyt ‘buskruit’ [1441; Van der Meulen 1942a], busskruit ‘id.’ [1481-83; MNW bussecloot], met daarnaast vormen als donderbuspoeder [ca. 1400-50; MNW stampen], donderbuscruut, dondercruut [MNHW].
Het eerste lid is mnl. busse ‘(kamer in een) vuurwapen, vuurroer’, zie → bus 1; het tweede lid is mnl. cruyt ‘(tover)kruid’, zie → kruid, → kruit.
Buskruit werd in Europa vanaf de 14e eeuw gebruikt.