Tainan FunTaiwan Fun
Google
 
Web Taiwanfun
COMPASS: +886 (4) 2358-5466

 

-ARTICLES
-DINING
-NIGHT LIFE
-TEA/COFFEE
-SHOPPING
-ARTS/LEISURE
-MOVIES
-TRAVEL
-INFORMATION
-MUSIC SCENE
-HUMOUR
-CLASSIFIEDS
-PERSONALS
-LANGUAGE EXCHANGE
-ABOUT US
-MAGAZINE SUBSCRIPTION

HOME >SOUTHERN TAIWAN > ARTICLES >

FYI SOUTH Magazine, February 2007

ROCKET RAGE: THE BEEHIVES OF YENSHUI

ROCKET RAGE: THE BEEHIVES OF YENSHUI

ROCKET RAGE: THE BEEHIVES OF YENSHUI

ROCKET RAGE: THE BEEHIVES OF YENSHUI

ROCKET RAGE: THE BEEHIVES OF YENSHUI

ROCKET RAGE: THE BEEHIVES OF YENSHUI

ROCKET RAGE: THE BEEHIVES OF YENSHUI

ROCKET RAGE: THE BEEHIVES OF YENSHUI

ROCKET RAGE: THE BEEHIVES OF YENSHUI

ROCKET RAGE: THE BEEHIVES OF YENSHUI

ROCKET 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 Festival.

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 fireworks.
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 you alight.

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:
http://homepage.mac.com/glchin/Yenshui/iMovieTheater2.html. Excerpts from an amateur documentary produced by a group calling themselves Spilling Light can be viewed at:
http://us.share.geocities.com/spillinglight/FIREWORKCURE.mov
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: www.wumiao.idv.tw/

--By Richard Matheson

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.

  Contributor's Boards business services | related links  | other links
© COMPASS GROUP 2000-2014 site by GCT Taiwan - Search Engine Positioning