Happy New Year from the fireworks capital of the world!

Posted on January 1, 2011

Happy New Year! Amidst all the celebrations we’ve been out to the firework capital of the world in search of even more exciting effects to light up  your shows in 2011. Brand new air terminals, smart new hotels and miles and miles of new motorways are some of the more conspicuous signs of China’s rapid rise to economic prosperity. On our latest buying trip we were given an even more resonant reminder when the first car to overtake us on one of the new highways was a Rolls-Royce!  China’s firework industry is widespread with factories in the north near Beijing and the south near Changsha. We headed first to Nanchang, about 500 miles north of Hong Kong, en route to the small town of Lidu, home of its eponymous and highly respected firework manufacturer. We were met at the airport by Ed Xu, who heads up Lidu’s sales team and speaks excellent English.

After a 65-mile journey along one of China’s impressive new toll roads (complete with that famliar but boringly unimaginative English motorway warning Don’t Drive While Tired) we were jolted back to reality on the country roads. A few trips over all the potholes, cracks and craters that bedevil the local road network will quickly wreck the suspension of the many Audis and Mercedes that are fast becoming the status symbols of China’s new entrepreneurs. Lidu’s headquarters are an impressively large building in the middle of the town, a fitting testament to their status as the area’s biggest employers with a staff of 1300 making everything from celebration crackers to huge football-sized display shells.  Only the police have a bigger HQ.

In between two evening demonstrations we were entertained to traditional Chinese meals of noodles, rice, pak choi, chicken broth, sweet and sour pork, and on one occasion stewed dog. Eating dog is no big deal in China. Dogs are domestic pets in the UK. If they weren’t I expect we might eat them with same indifference as the Chinese. My colleague Steve didn’t share my inhibition and pronounced it very tasty. Meals in China are a very important ritual shared in our case by the factory manager, his staff and his guests. You sit round a circular table with a glass turntable (known back home as a Lazy Susan) on which dishes are placed. The turntable goes backwards and forwards as you help yourself to whatever you like. Steve (our Display Director) and I determined to be ‘when in Rome’ and perservered with chopsticks throughout our stay. The boiled chicken’s feet were a bit tricky but my lack of dexterity didn’t prevent me from sampling these and the many other dishes on offer.  Green tea and water are the usual refreshments but beer was also available and our hosts insisted on making many toasts to our good health throughout the meals.

The serious business of watching demonstrations began at nightfall around 6pm. By this time the temperature had dropped from about 14 degrees to 7 or 8 so it was just as well that we had packed our woollies. We were taken to  a covered viewing platform and provided with pen, paper and a penlight to illuminate our scribblings. We were shown about 50 fireworks in quick succession, ranging from rapid-fire barrages to aerial shells. Each item is hand-crafted by a team of about 30 technicians, starting with the manufacture of the key components of coloured stars and effects and ending with the paper wrappings, glue and fuses which complete the job. Firework manufacture is very labour intensive. There is almost a person for every step of the process and because of its volatile nature, it cannot be mechanised to any significant degree.

One of the problems facing the Chinese firework industry is that rural workers can earn better money in the cities – and it’s a lot safer. Despite the government trying to tighten safety procedures fatalities are still commonplace. Small wonder then that firework prices are rising as the labour market diminishes. Looking round the Lidu factory we were impressed with the orderliness and neatness of the rows of concrete production units. As in all explosives factories, units are separated in such a way as to try to prevent an explosion in one carrying over to another. Many of the workers we saw were female. They were happy to be photographed although shy of facing the camera. They displayed something which seems prevalent in all Chinese,  a sunny disposition in rugged, challenging conditions. Walking between buildings you could hear their banter as they called each other in loud, excited voices.

Our demos included some beautiful new effects which we know will wow audiences back home. Among them was an aquatic firework which is fired on to water. Here it lies dormant for a few seconds before lighting up into a myriad of brightly coloured flares which look an absolute picture. Of the many barrages and shells on show, we were especially impressed by a rapid-fire cake (barrage) which poduced a fizzing, glittering, crackling V of gold with a central column of strobing red stars. Ten out of ten! Among the shells we liked was a 6-inch brocade crown which burst in mazy trails of gold which trickled down the sky before producing a secondary effect of twinkling red. Beautiful!

Hotels in China often look grand but looks can sometimes be misleading. Expecting to find at least a coffee for breakfast we had to make do instead with a choice of water, milk and noodles. This diet is good for the Chinese, obesity is not a problem here, but it’s not always to Western tastes. There is little else, even in the shops, no sign of a Mars bar, a KitKat or crisps. But you can find Chinese Coke.

Before leaving the following morning we were taken back to the factory to take a second look at a firework which failed to ignite the previous evening. This was one of our ‘display in a box’ items for the UK domestic market. When we arrived three technicians were busy reassembling it and within minutes it was ready to fire. This time it performed perfectly and we were able to tick that box and say our goodbyes.

Our next journey was to Liu Yang, which is not just the firework capital of China but probably the world. It is a bustling city of about two million people, most of whom seem to be employed in the fireworks industry. Liu Yang is in Hunan province, also about 500 miles north of Hong Kong and a four-hour car journey from Lidu. Countryside in this area of China is largely flat, with occasional rocky outcrops, and covered in paddy fields and electricity pylons. China is the world’s biggest rice producer with an output in excess of 180 million tons a year. Like fireworks it is highly labour intensive with little or no mechanisation. Our journey was punctuated by a stop at a service station where we managed to indentify fruit pastilles, chocolate straws and a bag of almonds as the  nearest we’d get to an edible lunch.

Our driver left us at one of Liu Yang’s most prestigious hotels, the Ying Tian, which has most of the facilities you’d expect of a big city hotel. After checking in we were met by our next host, Harry Liu, head of Forward Fireworks. Harry is a 40-year-old bundle of energy and bonhomie. Our orders are miniscule in comparison to the huge American market for his products but he treated us with all the respect and generosity you might think would be reserved for only his most important customers.  During our three nights in Liu Yang we were taken to seven demonstrations firing off a total of nearly 500 fireworks. Even the most demanding buyers would find something to their liking amongst all this. Another aqua firework was the first to catch our eye, this one firing 36 rounds into the blackness, then a pause followed by a huge eruption of coloured stars and aerial reports. A wonderfully spectacular and theatrical effect, enhanced by the reflections created over water.

Of all the shells and barrages we saw we particularly liked something called a ‘thousand dragons eggs’, a 6-inch shell which bursts high in the sky in a series of small crackling silver bursts. Just as you think that’s it, each of the bursts produces a sharp report which echoes across the sky. Another top mark.  Among the barrages we loved a 165-shot figure of 8 pattern. The tubes are angled and fused in such a way as to create a rapid-fire swirl of alternating red and green star bursts. The verdict: Wow!

After one evening’s demos we were invited to a foot massage. I took this at face value and settled down for some soothing treatment. I didn’t realise that the word ‘foot’ in the description might be a reference to the instrument of massage. Asked to turn on to my stomach I soon felt something rather heavier than a pair of hands on my back!  A good hour later, and feeling well and truly downtrodden, we set off for a restaurant. Food in Liu Yang is more plentiful than in the country and the choices more in line with Europe. We were offered lobster, king prawns, satay skewers, ice cream and sorbets.

During the day Harry took us to a factory manufacturing fibre glass mortar tubes. As with so much industry in China these are ‘cottage’ jobs taking place in back gardens and garages. Working with epoxy resin all day can’t be good for your health, even when wearing face masks (which several of the workers were not). We noticed a huge order being prepared for a well-known Spanish firework company. The Chinese don’t seem to pay much attention to the niceties of their immediate environment, with, in this instance,  fibreglass offcuts being dumped in the field with no means of disposal. Everywhere you go in China seems to be a hive of activity. Everywhere you see industrialisation. There is not much that’s pretty to look at. Perhaps that’s the point. The Chinese are too busy making things to notice the mess they make. We want their goods, and increasingly, so do they. They will tell you that this is their Industrial Revolution and were things any different here when we had ours? They have a point.

Jon Culverhouse, January 1st 2011.