RAGE: THE BEEHIVES OF YENSHUI
By Steven Crook Translated
by Mei Lee
Photos by Richard Matheson and Pieter Vorster
By global standards, southern Taiwan
has few truly exceptional geographical or cultural features.
However, it does boast what is probably the most extreme
and exciting pyrotechnics event in the world: The Yanshuei
Fireworks Festival, also known as the Beehive Rockets
The festival includes plenty of pretty
explosions in the sky, but this isn't a fireworks display
in the conventional sense. It's an audience-participation
event. Hundreds of thousands of bottle rockets are fired
at, into, and around those watching. For those who get
close to the action, it's like being in a war zone.
The festival is held once a year in
the small Tainan County town of Yanshuei, 15 days after
Chinese New Year. A reckless pandemonium envelops the
town; for Western visitors used to paying high prices
and signing legal disclaimers for carefully managed
"extreme" sports experiences, it's a revelation.
Almost everyone who gets close to the
frontline at Yanshuei wears a full-face motorcycle helmet
and thick fireproof clothing. Even then, there are plenty
of casualties. According to Chinese-language media reports,
19 people required medical attention during the 2006
event. The toll is sometimes close to 100.
Burns and bruises are very common. There's
also a risk of getting trampled; the crowd often exceeds
50,000 people, crammed into the old, narrow streets
of a town with just 28,000 inhabitants.
If the results of the festival are bloody,
the event's history is undoubtedly gruesome. The festival
reenacts a plague expulsion rite. More than a century
ago, an outbreak of cholera wreaked havoc on Yanshuei,
which was then a prosperous harbor town and one of Taiwan
four main commercial centers.
Neither physicians nor shamans could
defeat the epidemic. In desperation, the local residents
called upon their gods to drive out the evil spirits
they blamed for the pestilence. Townsfolk carried through
the streets an effigy of Guan Gong, a deified general
regarded as the Chinese god of brotherhood and righteousness.
At every turn they let off masses of firecrackers.
The exorcism worked and the epidemic
receded. Ever since, there have been annual parades,
sponsored by local businesses and temples. Participation
is free; residents cash in by selling snacks, soft drinks
and protective attire.
The festival now includes folk arts
performances and other activities spread over two or
more days. The fireworks parade, by far the most popular
part of the festival, begins around dusk on the 15th
day of the first lunar month, and continues until dawn
the following day.
For a full-on experience, stay close
to the palanquins--the sedan chairs on which the religious
icons are carried by teams of volunteers. Pay attention
when you see a palanquin carried over a pile of burning
ghost money, because all hell is about to break loose.
The crowd will fall silent. You'll hear
an eerie creaking as the sedan chair is swung back and
forth over the flames. Nearby, you'll see final preparations
being made to a "beehive"--a wooden frame
the size of a truck, packed with tens of thousands of
When the beehive erupts, fireworks fly into the sky.
A few seconds later, rockets will start to shoot horizontally
out of the beehive. Wherever you stand, fireworks will
scream like tracer bullets over your head. The onslaught
forces almost everyone to take a few steps back. If
you're slow to react, you might find yourself fully
exposed in the field of fire. If that happens, you'll
be pummelled by rockets; the physical sensation is akin
to being surrounded by a stone-throwing mob.
This is the beehive living up to its
name: Like angry bees, rockets scream in every direction,
ricochet off the houses on either side of the street,
and sting any flesh left bare.
When it's over, do what everyone else
does: Shuffle your limbs vigorously for several seconds,
to shake loose any smoldering fireworks that might be
trapped in folds of your clothing before they can set
Your safety is your responsibility.
In the hours before the first beehive goes off, small
trucks drive around Yanshuei, showing posters and using
audio recordings to instruct festival-goers how to dress.
However, police--who have enough on their hands directing
traffic, evacuating casualties, and dealing with those
who have had their pockets picked-- do not turn away
individuals who come unprepared.
In addition to wearing a helmet with
an intact visor, you should cover your torso with two
or more layers of clothing, and bring a pair of gloves.
Avoid nylon garments, for obvious reasons. Strong footwear
is essential as you're toes will get stomped on.
Wrap an old towel around your neck to
stop rockets bouncing up into your helmet. If you do
expect to be on the frontline, leave no part of your
body unprotected. Anything less leaves you vulnerable--something
Ariana Lindquist discovered to her cost a few years
ago. "My friend and I had decided to head home,
so I took my ear plugs out," says the American.
"Then we went back and stood right in front of
a fireworks wall as it went off. A rocket flew up under
my helmet and exploded. It took a month for the hearing
in one of my ears to fully recover."
If you want to get a taste of the festival
without risking your eyesight or hearing, go online.
A trailer for a documentary being made by New York filmmaker
Glen Chin can be seen online at:
Excerpts from an amateur documentary produced by a group
calling themselves Spilling Light can be viewed at:
What do the authorities think of the event? Yanshuei,
which is inundated with visitors around the time of
the beehives, but falls off the tourist map for the
rest of the year, is now marketing itself as a town
full of history and antiquity, like Lugang.
Chen Chi-nan, former Council of Cultural
Affairs minister, realized that most people attend for
kicks, not because of piety. In an interview a few years
ago he said: "When modern people participate in
something like the Yanshuei fireworks, they're looking
for fun and excitement, and do not see it as a traditional
way of preventing disaster and praying for prosperity."
The 2007 Yanshuei Fireworks Festival
will begin around dusk on Saturday, March 3. During
the festival, non-residents are barred from bringing
vehicles downtown. However, finding a parking space
on the outskirts isn't difficult. You can reach Yanshuei
by public transportation--lots of trains stop at Sinying,
from where you can take a taxi or local bus. Late at
night, there are plenty of taxis. For a Chinese-language
schedule of events, see the Martial Temple's website:
PHOTOS WHILE THE BEES ARE BUZZING
Yanshuei is a visual spectacular,
and draws photographers like moths to a flame. However,
taking good photos at the event is not easy. For a start,
there's the matter of protecting your gear from all
the projectiles flying around. An underwater housing
(a special box photographers use when shooting in water)
works well but isn't cheap: some cost NT$10,000. You
could do what I have done and build a box using plexiglass.
But, before going to Yanshuei, test the box to see how
the plexiglass affects exposure.
Because the event is
at night, you'll need longer exposure times. A monopod
is more convenient than a tripod. As for shooting with
a digital or a film camera, the advantage of digital
is that you can check the photos right away, and adjust
the settings accordingly. However, film will get better
results than a low-end digital camera. You'll probably
be depending on your camera's automatic settings, because
you'll be wearing gloves (essential, because your hands
will be exposed most of the time, and will get repeatedly
hit by rockets). If you can, ahead of time scout out
the route of the parade and find good vantage points
for photography. Even better, befriend a local and get
invited onto a balcony or rooftop!
In addition to writing
and photographing dozens of stories for FYI SOUTH since
2003, Richard Matheson's pictures have appeared in the
China Post and in various inflight magazines. A Canadian,
he divides his time between Tainan City and a mountain
village in Kaohsiung County.