The full moon has been known to make people do crazy things. Good thing the final day of the Chinese New year is always planned to fall on one. It’s my theory that the spell of the moon is one of the reasons the Taiwanese have the balls to jump into a sea of fireworks every year at the Beehive Rocket Festival, which has been rated the 5th most dangerous festival in the world.
I think that is why I had the courage.
For the past 2 weeks, Taiwan has been in a New Year frenzy. Offerings have been made, traditional foods have been eaten, fireworks have been popped, families have been vacationing, and the sky must have thrown up red because everything in the country is covered in it.
I moved here about a month ago to teach English, and I couldn’t have timed it more perfectly for two reasons: the period leading up to the New Year is the school hiring season, and experiencing the Chinese New Year has been a fast track to immersion in the Taiwanese culture. Every day of the Chinese New Year is special, with its own rituals and traditions, and I attempted to follow as many as I could. Throughout the journey, I have made offerings to the Gods, eaten new foods, popped some firecrackers, and begrudgingly grown a year older (well, according to the Chinese calendar).
Last Sunday was the 15th day of Chinese New Year, and the grand finale took place. And a grand finale it was. The Beehive Rocket Festival, also known as the Yanshui Fireworks Festival, is held in Yan Shui, a town about an hour’s drive from my hometown of Kaohsiung. When I first moved here, I remember people telling me tales of a festival comprised of lunatics with a death wish, clad in motorcycle helmets, body suits, and towels wrapped around their heads. I was shown pictures and advised not to go; unless I wanted to lose an eye.
So naturally, I had to go.
How’d This Thing Start?
In 1885, a wave of plague and cholera struck the inhabitants of Yan Shui. Back in the day, there were no hospitals or effective treatments for the sick, so the locals desperately turned to the God of War (remember we celebrated his birthday on the 13th day of Chinese New Year) for help. The town set off firecrackers to honor him, and it is said that the epidemic disappeared. Ever since, the town holds the Yan Shui Firework Festival every year in his honor, where millions of bottle rockets are set off.
On Sunday, I suited up in a motorcycle helmet, a shirt, rain jacket, and sweater, long black cotton pants, boots, a heavy duty pair of motorcycle gloves, and a towel to wrap around my head before I stepped into the line of fire. Ready for action, I boarded the train.
When I arrived to Yan Shui, the earth-shattering explosions from the fireworks could be heard and felt immediately; all I had to do was follow the sound. I immediately noticed towering structures, called castles, made entirely out of wooden boards and bottle rockets. These castles are blown up at different times during the night after an offering is burned. Devotees also walk around parading statues of Gods encased in glass as acts of homage. Right before a castle is blown up, fire trucks immediately speed over to where the action takes place. Spectators not wishing to participate take cover behind cars or buildings, and the ones brave (or mad) enough to put themselves in the line of fire stand right up front.
I had no idea what to expect when the first castle went off. All I remember was getting doused with a water hose by an old Taiwanese man, and his wife saying “no, no, you should not go”. Way to make me me feel confident. But before I could change my mind, the castle was ignited, and the rockets started coming whether I liked it or not. One bit me in the leg, so I started hoping from one foot to the next to avoid getting struck again. Everyone at this point was doing the same, while keeping heads down to avoid a bottle rocket going up their helmets.
The buzzing was deafening, the smoke became one massive blinding cloud, and the barrage of fireworks grew stronger with more time. Eventually, after about 5 minutes, they dwindled down and it was safe to take my helmet off and breathe. I looked around to assess the damage done to my neighbors, and it seems I got lucky. Many of the other teachers’ clothes were dotted with burn holes, and one was even the unlucky victim of a sneaky bottle rocket that made its way into his helmet; his face had a trickle of blood making its way down his cheek and neck. It was also rumored that a couple of people caught on fire. Good thing I had my hair up.
All in all, it was an epic adrenaline rush.
In a nutshell, I made it to two more castles, and then decided to call it a night seeing as it was one in the morning on a school night. I might be down to risk my eyeball on a Sunday night, but being late to class is out of the question for this teacher.