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Fireworks explode in a Shanghai street on Thursday, the eve of the Lunar New Year. Setting off firecrackers is meant to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. But many Chinese say they won't buy firecrackers this year, owing to growing worries about air quality. (AFP/Getty Images)

Air Quality Worries Dampen Chinese New Year Fireworks

Jan 31, 2014 (Morning Edition)

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One of the most popular fireworks is the classic string of firecrackers. One vendor was selling a string of 5,000 for about $35. Still, many people find it hard to give up the custom. Here, people watch as firecrackers are set off in Shanghai on Thursday. Vendors sold everything from Roman candles to long strings of firecrackers from street corners -- though some reported sluggish sales.

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People in China rang in the Year of the Horse overnight with the traditional barrage of fireworks, but Lunar New Year's celebrations in some cities were quieter than usual. After severe pollution choked much of eastern China last year, many people swore off the ancient tradition so they could protect their lungs and the environment.

Shanghai resident Shen Bingling used to celebrate by wheeling a luggage cart full of fireworks onto a street and joining the neighbors in igniting a frenzy of pyrotechnics. Chunks of burned paper would rain down and the air would fill with clouds that smelled of sulfur. Shen, who works as a doorman in a downtown apartment building, says he wouldn't dream of doing something like that today.

"According to our Chinese people's tradition, to have good fortune you should set off fireworks," says Shen, 55, who wore a red scarf in honor of the Lunar New Year. "But for the sake of the air now, you shouldn't."

Record-breaking, toxic smog struck Shanghai in December and appears to have dramatically changed minds here. More than 85 percent of citizens say they won't buy fireworks during this holiday, according to a survey by the Shanghai Bureau of Statistics. For Julia Liu, a teacher in the city's financial district, the memories of last year's smog are fresh and awful.

"Every morning, when I got out of bed and went outside, I'd see that the air was gray and yellow," she says. "It put me in a bad mood. My throat was pretty dry. There's probably no direct health effect now, but I worry that 10 or 20 years from now, it might have an impact."

Liu, 34, grew up lighting fireworks in China's frigid northeast, but this year she cut her family's fireworks budget.

"I think if everyone can reduce the amount of fireworks they set off, that can really benefit our air quality," she says. "But I can't completely give up fireworks, because I have a child. So, if he doesn't set off fireworks, he'll feel very disappointed."

Chinese light fireworks this time of year to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. Even with pollution rising to hazardous levels Thursday, some people felt compelled by custom or nostalgia.

Li Mei, a retired cigarette factory worker who wore a plaid surgical mask, pulled up to a sidewalk stand on her red scooter and bought a strand of firecrackers — her first purchase of fireworks since her father died three years ago.

"Every year my heart was very sad," says Li. "I really missed him. This year, my heart is much better, so I'm going to buy fireworks and light them off."

Sales were slow at some fireworks stalls Thursday, but by early afternoon Zhang Pengfei had already sold more than $6,000 worth from the folding tables in front of his tea house. His best seller: a string of 5,000 firecrackers for about $35. He says fireworks — which were invented in China — are a part of the culture.

"It's emphatically not something you can just change in one or two years," says Zhang, 28, who wore a pair of glasses with bright orange frames.

The government acknowledges that solving China's air pollution problem will take a long time. Even though Zhang did well this season, he's not optimistic about sales in the years to come.

"I think in the future, this business is not going to go well," he says, "because more and more people won't be willing to light fireworks."

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