Firecracker booms rocked urban Beijing with bright flashes during this year's Chinese Lunar New Year holiday, challenging the city's 12-year-old ban on the festive but often dangerous explosives.
Even within the Second Ring Road, the innermost areas of Beijing's city proper, crackers were constantly heard, set off by unidentified residents, though posters reading "firecrackers forbidden" are seen in nearly every street.
Most Beijingers seem quite used to this kind of defiance which has been seen nearly every year since firecrackers were first banned in 1993.
This year, however, the city put a special office in charge of the firecracker ban and expanded the banned areas beyond the Fifth Ring Road into some densely inhabited areas on the outskirts.
Before the holiday, the office sent a short message to cell phone subscribers to remind them of the firecracker ban.
On Tuesday, the Chinese New Year's Eve, Beijing police sent 130, 000 policemen, market regulators and volunteers to patrol the urban streets, but firecrackers were still constantly heard, particularly in areas near the Fourth and Fifth ring roads.
"We stepped up publicity work weeks before the holiday and it worked to some extent," said Vice-Mayor Ji Lin. But still, he admitted some areas were "out of control."
Some residents had bought firecrackers from rural markets beforehand and set them off when they heard others first do so.
The booming of firecrackers mark the passing of the old year, said a Beijing resident surnamed Meng, who is firmly against the ban. "That's the tradition handed down from generation to generation," he said.
Meng confessed he led his family to light firecrackers in his downtown neighbourhood on the eve of the Chinese New Year because he "used to do the same every year as a child."
Even a lawyer set off firecrackers near his downtown resident in Dongzhimen, where the explosive is strictly banned.
"Childhood memories still cling to me and I cannot help lighting firecrackers to celebrate the family festival and particularly to make my son happy," said Wang Xiaohui, 37, who has been an attorney in Beijing for 15 years.
"The Chinese New Year in the traditional sense is a carnival," said Zheng Yimin, vice-chairman of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles. "With firecrackers banned, the festival is far less joyous."
Though Beijing's lawmakers deliberated the residents' call for removal of the firecracker ban during their annual session in 2004, the local legislature eventually upheld the ban on safety grounds.
The firecracker ban office told Xinhua on Saturday that this year alone, 53 Beijingers were injured by firecrackers on New Year's Eve on Tuesday as they set off firecrackers.
Two leading downtown hospitals, Tongren and Jishuitan, received 19 people injured by firecrackers during the most festive hours between 6:00 PM on Tuesday and 1:00 AM on Wednesday. The number of injured is more or less the same as last year.
But the good news is the city's firemen put out 99 fires caused by firecrackers on New Year's Eve, down 36 per cent from last year, said a spokesman from the firecracker ban office.
"It is dangerous to light firecrackers but we cannot ban everything that is dangerous. We cannot ban cars and buses to avoid traffic accidents for example," said Zhang Zhongli, an attorney with Beijing Jiacheng Law Firm.
His view is echoed by many Chinese.
Responding to residents' calls, 105 Chinese cities have removed the firecracker ban, including Shanghai.
Beijing reports record festival sales volume
The total sales volume of shops in Beijing in the first four days of the weeklong Spring Festival period set a record of 739 million yuan (US$89 million) in the Year of Rooster, according to statistics released Sunday by Beijing Municipal Commerce Information Service Center.
The number of customers to various department stores in Beijing on the third day of the Chinese Lunar New Year (last Friday) increased 15 percent compared with the same day of last year. Traditionally, Chinese exchange visits among family members or stay home in the first two days of the Lunar New Year.
Statistics based on 132 shops of 28 local catering companies showed their total business volume on the fourth day of the Lunar New Year (last Saturday) came to 5.67 million yuan (US$683,500), a year-on-year increase of 30 percent.
As the fifth day is traditionally a day for eating dumplings, Chinese wives thronged into supermarkets from Sunday morning to buy instant dumplings, or made dumplings by themselves at home. Some families went to restaurants to enjoy a "Dumpling Feast".
The Spring Festival, which falls on Feb. 9 this year, is the country's most important traditional festival, or an occasion of family reunion and a grand shopping season.
More Beijingers donate blood in holiday season
A pair of anonymous lovers donated blood voluntarily at the ongoing Longtan temple fair on Sunday in China's capital to celebrate the upcoming Valentine's Day.
The blood center under the municipal Red Cross Society called for more lovers to spend the romantic day by donating blood, so as to meet the clinical blood demand in Beijing. And on the special day for lovers, the center will prepare a small gift and a rose for each blood donor.
At the threshold of the Chinese Lunar New Year that fell on Feb. 9, the center had only 1,000 units (one unit equals to 200 cc) of blood in store, or one fifth of the normal standard of 5,000 units, sources with the center said.
To satisfy its pressing needs, the blood center has dispatched blood collection vehicles to seven temple fairs, including Longtan, the Temple of Earth and Chaoyang Park, and to the Beijing Railway Station as well as major downtown shopping malls, according to the sources.
The center has also invited 14 volunteers to explain basic knowledge about blood donation aboard every blood collection vehicle at the temple fairs and malls, the sources added.
In the first two days of the weeklong Spring Festival holiday, more than 1,400 people donated blood in Beijing, with a daily donation tripling the regular average, the sources added.
By press time, the blood center has increased its blood storage to more than 4,000 units, which is able to meet clinical needs for the holiday season, the sources said.
(China Daily, Xinhua News Agency February 14, 2005)