A ritual cleansing: Taiwan's fireworks festival

Crushed in a mass of human sweat and adrenaline, with a tower of bottle rockets pointed straight at me, I wondered if I’d made the right decision. Earlier that afternoon a group of us had jumped on our scooters and begun the journey south to Yanshui. I was only six months into what would end up being a seven-year stint in Taiwan and was now facing what felt like certain death (or at the very least, a health and safety nightmare.)

Yanshui is a town on the west coast of Taiwan, an island cleaved in two by a spine of mountains stretching north to south. On the 15th day of the Chinese lunar calendar, more than 100,000 eager souls converge here for the annual 鹽水蜂炮 Yanshui Feng Pao (Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival), hoping to be graced with good luck. This luck is delivered to pyro-pilgrims in the form of bottle rockets. Thousands of mini-missiles, primed and ready, shot directly at fleshy bodies seeking the blessing of the gods. 

The ritual started in the 1800s, after a cholera epidemic ravaged the town for more than twenty years. Calling on the god of war, villagers lit firecrackers along the road, hoping they could lure him in to cure the afflicted. The cholera subsided, but the tradition of lighting fireworks lived on, (through martial law and Covid pandemics) evolving into a modern-day bottle rocket masochism.  

We drove through endless tiny towns, past rice fields growing under highways and women in skimpy outfits, bored and on display, selling betelnut on the roadside. After two hours of driving, Yanshui appeared as streaks of light on the horizon, like a marooned ship casting flares into the night sky. Inchoate figures moved through the haze that lay heavy over the town. As we parked I watched a young man whip a rope of firecrackers around him like a kamikaze matador, errant sparks showering those around him. We swigged tall boys of beer to give us courage as we donned our protective gear. 

Protective wear is essential for festival-goers. Image: Kayt Bronnimann

Now, for all you firework fashionistas, here are some hot tips for your best festival attire. Sneakers (to aid in a swift escape) thick socks and jeans. On top? Layers. You want to ensconce yourself in a thick cushion of (preferably non-flammable) material. Finish off the look with a scarf, some gloves and a mask to filter out the fumes. Don’t forget the pièce de résistance, a full-face motorcycle helmet to preserve your precious looks. For the more discerning festival-goers, a towel affixed to the back of your helmet provides next-level Lawrence of Arabia protective chic. 

Armour donned, we joined the main procession. Statues of the Gods, encased in a glass dais were carried along the road with reverence befitting royalty. Skyrockets crackled across the skies, no break in the intensity. Cardboard carcasses from spent fireworks littered the streets. This was Guy Fawkes on crack. Somehow, I’d become a willing participant in a pyrotechnic warzone.

Thousands of bottle rockets waiting to be lit. Image: Kayt Bronnimann

At regular intervals throughout the town, were massive ‘beehives’. These giant metal monstrosities, the drawcard of the evening. Sinister bristling porcupines with bottle rockets for quills, waiting to be ignited. A crowd would encircle the structures, eager for the artillery to bless them with fiery fortune. After observing the action from afar I finally mustered the courage to join in.

We stood, shoulder to shoulder, strangers pressed close in a tight embrace. The kind of drumbeat you feel in your belly began to vibrate through the crowd, signalling that the beehive was about to come to life. We began to jump as one. A giant, undulating wave of heat, terror and excitement. 

Then, silence. 

The world exploded. Firecrackers flew in all directions, vicious fireflies dancing amongst the bodies, screaming in our ears, crashing drunkenly into a seething mass of legs, elbows, torsos. I had chosen my spot well. Wedged in the middle of the pack, a phalanx of braver warriors provided a buffer to the worst of the onslaught. Finally, the beehive was spent, and people slowly began to drift away, following the gods to the next anointing. 

Cleansed by the flames.

And bathed in the perspiration of a thousand kindred pyro maniacs. 

- Asia Media Centre