Shanghai sans fireworks – where has all the renao gone?

Traditional celebrations for Spring Festival would normally center around family, food, red envelopes and fireworks. But for the past few years, something has been missing.

“Electronic firecrackers” enjoys good sale after Shanghai launched the ban of fireworks within the Outer Ring Road in 2016.

Traditional celebrations for Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year — without a doubt China’s most important and significant festival — would normally center around family, noise, food, red envelopes and fireworks. But for the past few years, something has been missing.

One of the things many families like to do these days is sitting around together and watching the Spring Festival Gala Show on CCTV — or at least have it blaring in the background — a ritual that began when the show started broadcasting annually back in 1983. With hundreds of millions of viewers, it’s the world’s most-watched TV show.

The gala is a must-watch television event, featuring live performances from many different genres. Securing a spot on the show can turn you into a household name in the world’s most populous nation.

In the north, families might get together and wrap jiaozi (dumplings) while they watch the show, ensuring wealth in the coming year. People all across the country might also play mahjong or chat or drink while eating bits and pieces throughout the evening.

At the stroke of midnight families would normally head outside and set off some loud, flashing, smoky firecrackers. It was a sound synonymous with the new lunar year beginning, and it filled the streets with a cloud of smoke and a smell you couldn’t mistake.

The noise of those firecrackers going off is meant to scare off evil spirits that come to give bad luck for the year ahead.

But apart from just warding off evil, fireworks serve another purpose during not only Spring Festival, but also at weddings, birthdays and many other celebrations: They help create that ever-important atmosphere that Chinese call renao.

If you’ve spent any time learning Chinese — it describes a buzzing, bustling, energetic, loud (in a good way) atmosphere — this concept might have been one of the first you learned.

And without a doubt, if you’ve spent any amount of time here, you’ll know renao more than well — it is something we all love and loathe in equal measure.

On these occasions it’s a must and a sign of success and happiness and health and all that good stuff.

But that all changed from January 1, 2016, when Shanghai banned the use of fireworks within the Outer Ring Road. And the ban was strict, with even the transportation of fireworks a big no-no.

It is a necessary step in tackling pollution. No one could disagree. But over the past two Chinese New Year celebrations in Shanghai, people started to miss that renao we all love and hate, that sudden popping sound that at first made your heart skip a beat.

So people resorted to buying “electronic firecrackers,” that flash with simulated pops of LED light and emit a loud popping sound as you light the fake wick (read: flick a switch). Producers of the red gadgets are turning a tidy profit.

We’re sentimental creatures, after all, and sometimes we miss things from the past, even if we know they’re not good for us anymore. 

The planet will breathe a sigh of relief as more and more cities across China move to put the damper on private fireworks.

And people all over China, young and old, will add another fond memory to their list of things that used to be.

For the good of the planet, we'll all agree. For the good of the planet.


Andy & Iverson's firework broadcast

Andy Boreham and Iverson Zhang will broadcast live on SHINE's Facebook and Twitter as they drive out of Shanghai's Outer Ring Road in order to legally buy and set off fireworks. Tune in on Monday (February 19) from 8pm via and @ShanghaiDaily. Note: Fireworks will be banned citywide if there is heavy pollution over the holiday. Check SHINE's Facebook or Twitter for updates.

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