WHERE THE WORLD'S FIREWORKS COME FROM
Remko Tanis • 27 December 2018
Liuyang in southeastern China is the fireworks capital of the world. Every day, all year round, this city is producing firecrackers, flower pots, roman candles and everything else that shoots colors with a bang. Or skips the colors and goes straight to the bang.
If you’re only into sparklers, you’re wasted on Liuyang.
That the label ‘Fireworks capital of the World’ is more than an empty tourist slogan becomes clear right away on the road into town. Both sides are flanked by dozens of billboards dedicated to decorative dynamite. They shout the brand names:
A giant steel fireworks statue marks the beginning of Liuyang’s main road, which is lined by nothing but fireworks shops. All lack safety measures beyond a ‘No Smoking’ sign to prevent things from blowing up.
Most of the Chinese fireworks that enters Europe through the port of Rotterdam comes from the few hundred factories here in Liuyang, which lies just east of Changsha, capital of Hunan province. Their production lines run all year long to meet the demand from people all over the world who want to fire it up at New Year’s, a Fourth of July or the opening of that new mall in town.
Bo Yuefei is the leading expert on fireworks in Liuyang, putting him pretty much on top of the pack of firework experts not just in China but worldwide. He has spend years as a civil servant, trying to introduce new rules to increase the safety of fireworks production.
“Liuyang has been the most important place for fireworks for over 1400 years,” he’s proud to say. “What’s more: dynamite was invented in this region. Even producers from other parts of the country still get their dynamite from us.”
Bo quit working for the government to become the boss of the Dream Fireworks company. He sold twelve million euros worth of fireworks last year, mainly for export.
Dream Fireworks is located outside of town, in the surrounding mountains. “Nowadays these factories aren’t allowed inside city limits,” says Bo. Small low-rise buildings are scattered around the factory grounds. Inside, women are at work labeling firecrackers in small batches.
To get to the more dangerous stuff, the bags filled with dynamite, you have to walk a narrow path etched out on the side of a mountain. Tiny stone sheds are positioned every ten meters or so along the path. A number painted on the outside of the sheds indicates the maximum allowed amount of dynamite that can be stored inside. If one explodes, the overall damage should be limited.
“A lot has changed over the past few years,” says Bo. “The rules have become very strict, forcing a few factories to close. After a few large incidents. Back in 2005 there were about ten thousand fireworks factories in China. Some of them were nothing more than dusty rooms in city buildings, without any safety measures in place.
From 1986 up to 2005 on average four hundred people died annually due to accidents in these factories. New regulation has cut the number of producers in half. Last year, the number of fatalities in the industry reached 188 people.
“Our safety measures are now comparable to those in Europe,” says Qiuming Cheong, director at Intently Fireworks. Most of his products are sold to Germany and the Netherlands. “The fact that we had to improve conditions means our costs have risen as well. Last week I had lunch with a boss from another factory who sold fireworks worth four million euros to Germany. But he hardly made any money on the sale, because Europeans don’t want to pay more for our fireworks than they did when production was a lot less safe.”
That’s not sustainable. Qiuming: “I guess if Europeans refuse to start paying more, we will just have to start selling them cheaper, simpler fireworks. It will make their New Year’s celebrations a lot less colorful.”
More photos from the Fireworks Capital of the World: