Before I tell about my experience, here is little bit of background. In the 19th century the town of Yanshui was suffering from a cholera outbreak. Locals called on Guan Gong, the god of war, to ward off the decease. The god agreed to help but said he had to be greeted by fireworks, so people organized large amounts of bottle rockets to be fired off. Apparently it worked (some say the sulfur in the fireworks killed the bacteria) so the town has made it a tradition to set off masses of fireworks on the 14th and 15th days of each Lunar New Year. The firecrackers are loaded into racks or beehives, and they shoot out in every direction like a swarm of angry bees. Palanquins carrying figurines of various gods are carried around in the streets and get bombarded with firecrackers, and people in protective gear join in since getting hit means you will have good luck in the upcoming year. You can read more details here and here. Enough background, on to my travels:
The main firecracker event would be on Tuesday evening so when I woke up that morning I prepared everything I would need. Because you will be in the line of fire of lots of exploding firecrackers you will need protection to not risk getting seriously hurt. I had studied the instructions for what you need and had prepared accordingly. I also remember my friend, who was part of the university fireworks club, saying that synthetic materials are bad because they melt so I made sure all my protective gear was made of natural fibers; while they may burn they at least don’t melt and stick to your skin. Of course, with the risk that the stuff I would wear could be damaged, I only brought stuff I was willing to throw away. Here is a list of the stuff I brought:
- A pair of old jeans
- A really old and tattered canvas jacket
- A pair of old sneakers (you don’t want to be wearing sandals to this event)
- A pair of work gloves
- A full face motorcycle helmet (your head is the most exposed part and therefor needs better protection)
- A breathing mask to stop the smoke (the one I got is made for dealing with Beijing smog)
- A couple of towels to cover the gap between my jacket and helmet
- Some duct tape to secure everything in place if I need it.
Since the fireworks would only start in the evening I decided to spend the day with some normal sightseeing. So, when I had finished preparing all my protective gear I packed it on the bike and set off. My first stop was Yuguang Island (漁光島) which is part of Anping harbor. In north Taiwan harbors and beaches often become minor tourist attractions with plenty of vendors ready to sell their wares to hungry tourists. Not so on Yuguang Island, the place was practically empty, not a vendor in sight. Though the place is part of the harbor there is not a lot of harbor infrastructure to be seen. Instead there is a beach with a few simple bamboo structures near one end, and a small band of forest separating the beach from the buildings on the city side. Overall a nice and relaxing place.
The bamboo tower from a couple of different angles
When I had relaxed on the beach for a little while I headed back into town for some lunch. After lunch I started making my way north towards the small town Yanshui where the Beehive firecracker event is held. It is a fair distance so I had planned several places more or less along the way where I could stop and look around. As it turned out I only had time for a few of them. For whatever reason, I decided to go with the two painted villages: Hu Jia Shanhua House painted village (善化胡厝寮彩繪村), and Winnie the Pooh painted village (小熊維尼彩繪村). Both of them are pretty similar: small quaint villages, situated among the rice fields, where several of the houses have various cartoon characters painted on them, making otherwise dull villages colorful and somewhat more lively. There are other places in Taiwan where the residents have painted their walls in similar ways but they are more interesting because the paintings are very creative, here they simply use well known cartoon characters which is fine, but just a little bit boring.
I think the two are similar enough that you only need to visit one of them, the only real difference is that one is focused on Winnie the Pooh while the other has a greater mix of characters. If you asked me I would be hard pressed to say which one I recommend, I would simply go to the one closest to any other attractions I had planned for the day.
Some pictures from the Hu Jia Shanhua House painted village
Pictures from the Winnie the Pooh painted village
I wanted to see a little bit of the preparation for the fireworks in daylight so when I was done visiting the painted villages I headed towards Yanshui. Yanshui is a small town not made for handling large crowds of visitors, so naturally the police had set up traffic control measures: cars weren’t allowed to drive into the town center but on my motorbike I could still ride past the barriers. Finding parking was difficult though and I had to circle around a bit before eventually finding a parking lot.
In the town the preparations were already finished when I arrived. On the Junior High School sports field, where the main event would be held, three big fireworks racks had already been set up, the actual firecrackers hidden behind metal doors covered in billboards. Some temporary bleachers had also been set up where various important people could sit and watch the show. In the street outside the Wu temple, the religious institution responsible for the festival, the palanquins with the gods had been set up and ready to go, and in the temple courtyard people half dressed in protective gear were milling about. As with any big festival in this country, a night market had been organized on one of the streets near the temple, where visitors could buy food and play market games while waiting for the show to start. Except for all that, several shops were selling protective gear to people who didn’t have their own.
In one street corner they had a game where people try to blow up a lantern hanging from a bamboo pole by throwing firecrackers. Seems very dangerous because you have to hold it while the fuse burns and throw it at last moment.
After checking out the preparations I had some dinner at the night market then started slowly making my way back to the bike to prepare. By this time the celebration had started somewhat, the palanquins were being carried around in the area and people were setting off small amounts of normal fireworks but as far as I could tell no beehives yet.
The Beehive Fireworks take place during the so called Lantern Festival. As part of that, there are several light installations that have been set up in the nearby riverside park. Since I had some time before I needed to be ready I checked them out on the way back to the bike. Some of them were really beautiful which is kind of sad considering they are more of a sideshow compared to the fireworks.
Pictures from the light installations in the river
After I reached the motorbike I prepared all my gear, taping one of the towels to the helmet and packed the rest in my shoulder bag. I then headed back towards the sports field. On the way I took what I thought would be a shortcut and ended up in a street full of people. As I tried to move further forward I realized why the crowd was there: a couple of the gods in there palanquins were there and the people in the nearby shops had prepared their own beehives. Realizing the risk I quickly donned all my protective gear and moved closer. Before I got close enough to really see much they fired off the first beehive. It was very exciting but I wanted to see more so I moved even closer.
As I came near the palanquins I noticed that the ground was absolutely covered in the remains of firecrackers, mounds of charred paper and sticks like drifts of snow; some of it was still smoldering and a few firecrackers popped off while I was standing there. I waited a little while and sure enough, they started preparing another beehive. Some minutes later I was standing in the second row surrounding the beehive, tense with anticipation. When the firecrackers started going off, the small space in the street quickly filled with smoke and I couldn’t see much. Surprisingly I wasn’t scared at all, I just felt excited for experiencing the big one.
After experiencing these small beehives I started making my way to the sport field. It got really hot and sweaty in all my protective gear so I was glad to take it off and cool down for a bit. When I got to the sports field it was still a while until the they would set off the fireworks so i joined the crowd and waited. At nine o’clock the announcer started speaking, letting us know that it was time to set off the main fireworks. She gave some brief information about emergency services and such then told us to get ready. I put my protective clothes back on and joined the crowd in front of the first rack of fireworks.
People waiting for the main fireworks
When the firecrackers started going off I was a little bit off to the side so I couldn’t see much and I kept getting jostled by other people, not the most exciting experience. When one rack was done they announced that it was safe and let everyone take off their protective clothes and get some cool air while they readied the next one. To stop people from getting bored they had set up some regular fireworks at the other end of the sports field that we could watch. For the second, and especially the third beehives, I was better positioned so I got the full experience; it felt like I was soldier under fire, several of the rockets even hit me or exploded next to me. Strangely I didn’t feel frightened even then, but it was a very visceral experience none the less.
A short collection of clips that I filmed while standing in front of the beehives. Sorry for the rather shoddy camerawork.
After the last of the big racks had been fired off the party would continue in other parts of the town as the palanquins with the gods would be carried around and shot at from many smaller beehives. Traditionally this keeps going until dawn the next day. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay the whole time because I had to get back to the hotel, 40 kilometers away in Tainan city. So I made my way back to the bike once more, packed away my protective gear and headed south. When I got back to the hotel I checked my clothes, I had expected a few holes or burn marks but there were none, only my helmet was covered in soot.
Overall I think the Yanshui Beehive Firecrackers is a unique event, in some ways similar to the La Tomatina festival in Spain. The experience is really something extra, seeing it in a video doesn’t quite capture the feeling of actually being there. So if you’re not too afraid (with good protection it’s not scary) I definitely think you should visit if you’re in Taiwan during the right time of year. I would actually consider to travel to Taiwan for visiting the festival, at least if I were elsewhere in east Asia during the Lunar New Year. Staying in Tainan city is fine but limits how long you can reasonably stay after the main event, so if possible I would recommend staying in a hotel closer to Yanshui. As for transportation I highly recommend a motorbike or scooter, otherwise you’ll end up parking far outside town. As a final note, remember to follow instructions on how to protect yourself, these firecrackers can be dangerous.