The loudest night of Chinese New Year

Filed in Memories

That would be last night, the 8th night of the 15-day Chinese New Year celebrations. I don’t remember hearing anything last night, but then I live on the 7th floor of a 16-storey apartment building, and the balcony doors were closed. Even then, it probably wasn’t as loud as what I remember from my childhood.

Traditionally, the 8th night was when firecrackers were let off – not a bang here or a bang there, but a rip of continuous crackling “pop-pop-pop” from a chain of firecrackers, followed by a momentary silence and then, the loudest heart-stopping “boom” ever.

Firecrackers are what I would call the “heart and soul” of Chinese New Year, and it was a sad day when firecrackers were banned in Malaysia in the early 1990s. Before that, there were no restrictions to where and when throughout the 15-day festivities.

I wasn’t a fan of firecrackers. As a kid, I remember going with my sister to visit our 3rd uncle on the first morning and both of us almost running through the streets with fingers in our ears, trying to dodge firecrackers being let off near us. It was meant to be fun, to light up a string of firecrackers, throw it in someone’s path and watch them jump in surprise. But it got more and more dangerous, often resulting in injuries, and I think that was what eventually led to the banning, which included its manufacture, import, sale, purchase, possession and use. Unfortunately, the ban often led to self-made firecrackers which were less safe than commercially available ones. But I’m digressing.

For me, my most vivid childhood memories of firecrackers were tied to the 8th night of Chinese New Year. This was the night when more firecrackers were set off than any of the other 15 days. At the time, I only knew that was the night we had many relatives gathered at the family medicine shop, there was an altar outside the front entrance with lots of burning joss sticks and candles, food offerings, and the centrepiece, a whole roasted suckling pig. The highlight of the night would be after the offerings were made and the pig would be carved up and portions given to every family present. And in the background, the firecrackers would be going off. The next morning, the street would be a carpet of red from the shredded firecracker paper.

There was one year my father had an unofficial competition going with the shop across the street to see who had the most chains of firecrackers to burn. Father was very organised, he had two structures built and a hoisting system to haul the firecrackers into place, which would then be set off on an alternating basis – as one chain was burning on one structure, a new chain would be hauled up the other structure and lit up as soon as the final “boom” from the first chain was heard so there would not be any pause in the noise.

Where was I when all that was going on? Upstairs in the living room, with cotton wool in both ears. I’m sure I went downstairs to have a look but was probably cautioned not to go too near in case any of the sparks flew too near. Sometime that night, I saw father rushing into the shop and later learned that one of the structures had collapsed. I don’t remember what happened after that, whether the fallen structure was hoisted back in place or the noise-making continued on just the remaining structure. There was, however, another image I remember from that night – the shop owner from across the street holding on to a lit firecracker chain and trying to twirl it around as it burned. Till today, I still think it was very brave of him to be so near holding and touching “live” firecrackers.

The 8th night of Chinese New Year actually has its own name, and it’s called “Bai Tien Gong” (meaning “praying to the heavenly god”). “Bai Tien Gong” is actually observed by the Hokkien community (Chinese people speaking the Hokkien dialect), and it marks the start of the Chinese New Year celebrations for them. What happened was that many, many years ago, during a civil upheaval in China, the Hokkiens went into hiding and when they emerged after the invaders had left, they found that it was already the 9th day of the Chinese New Year, and also the birthday of the “heavenly god”. So the 9th day – or the 8th night going into the new day at midnight – became the Hokkien Chinese New Year.

Now, my family is not Hokkien, but my father observed the Hokkien Chinese New Year, more for the food and the noise made by the firecrackers, and for the opportunity it gave for the family to get together. We haven’t observed this night for many years, not just because firecrackers were banned in the early 1990s – I think we stopped long before that – but also because first, my brother, and then I, embraced Christianity, and my parents decided to do away with the “old” ways.

These days, there are electric firecracker decorations that light up but do not really go off – after all, they are just decorations. For old times’ sake, here’s a video I found off YouTube of a 28-metre long chain of firecrackers that had to be laid flat on the ground.