Firecrackers: A self-destructive Pinoy addiction?

Firing an ancient Chinese rocket
Firing a rocket, from "History of ancient Chinese fireworks' invention,"

(Originally published on GMA News Online website. See author’s note here.)

It was 11:45 p.m. on December 31, 1972, the first New Year’s Eve after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. Like countless others across the country, our clan was gathered at the old family house, but sensed some uneasy quiet since the martial law government had imposed a total firecrackers ban.

My childhood memories of New Year’s Eve had always been one of rambunctious revelry in yards and streets, with neighbors weaving in and out of each others’ homes amid a wall-to-wall din of firecrackers, tooting horns, and the clangor of kitchen pots and pans. But this time, we and our neighbors—big fans of street explosions—faced the prospect of a silenced New Year’s Eve.

Our fears turned out to be unfounded. At about five minutes before midnight, a staccato of explosions started to roll in from the city’s general background noise, mounting into the familiar crescendo we all knew.

It was a brief and modest show, but it did prove one thing: With all the stern decrees and PC-Metrocom troops at his command, Marcos could not prevent Metro Manilans from greeting the New Year in their fiercely awesome—almost fearsome—way.

There was a good side to this: six years later, these same Metro Manilans would express their defiance of martial law in a New Year’s Eve-like noise barrage—complete with firecrackers—that shook the confidence of Marcos and his candidates in the rigged April 1978 IBP elections. That historic noise barrage would, in turn, serve as kernel for the 1986 EDSA revolt where millions showed up in the streets to face the tanks sent by Marcos and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Fabian Ver.

We all know what the bad side is. These are the same Filipinos who are warned—year in, year out—about the dangers of firecrackers by being shown gory scenes of mangled fingers and casualty counts on TV. But judging from the brisk sales of firecrackers, millions of us stubbornly persist in this infamous practice that turns our urban streets into war zones and our hospitals into gory bedlams each New Year’s Eve.

One is led to wonder if these are the same Filipinos who show up in the streets, again and again, to become usiseros (active onlookers) who ogle weapons and dodge bullets during firefights, big and small, from the December 1989 coup attempt all the way to the August 2010 Luneta bus hostage crisis.

Is the usisero habit propelled by the same collective psyche that drives the obsession for wall-to-wall firecrackers? Are we a people so inured to living dangerously day by day, that many of us can shrug off the risk of maimed fingers, if not death from a stray bullet, just to satisfy some morbid fascination for the heart-stopping blast, the burnt nitrate smell, and the haze of gunpowder in the streets?

Chinese origins

Perhaps a quick glimpse into history would show a cultural pattern, and help us decide whether to finally junk this morbid fascination, if indeed it has become an addictive and self-destructive habit, and how to do so.

True, the human urge to use celebratory noise and fire is clearly rooted in the sense of human community, ever since primitive bands huddled around bonfires and learned to dance and ululate, to celebrate the hunt and drive away the feared spirits of the dark. Later civilizations turned to more elaborate festivities and bigger bonfires to mark the end of the agricultural calendar that would later evolve into yearend celebrations.

But how did explosions enter the scene? Many would lay the blame, or honor, on the ancient Chinese who invented gunpowder, which they applied not only to military but also to civilian uses, especially in the form of firecrackers and other fireworks mostly for celebration and ritual.

According to Chinese myth, a monstrous beast called Nien would come on the first day of the New Year and devour crops, livestock, even people. At first, villagers would give food offerings to appease the monster. Later they learned to scare the Nien with the color red, bright lights, and loud noises. Thus began the lunar New Year customs of burning bonfires, hanging red lanterns and other red decor on doors and windows, and exploding firecrackers, to drive away evil spirits and to celebrate the shifting of seasons.

From China, the use of fireworks for the New Year and other big occasions spread to other Asian peoples, including countries that hosted sizeable Chinese immigrant populations. From there, it was not a difficult step to graft the lunar New Year practice of fireworks to that of the Christian New Year’s Eve.

Even now, many cities and regions of China and a few other Asian countries continue to allow the legal use of firecrackers during the lunar and Christian New Years and on other festive occasions, while they wrestle with its adverse effects and ways to regulate the practice.

The example of Beijing, as explained by Jaime FlorCruz, a veteran Filipino journalist in China, is a case in point.

The practice of setting off all sorts of fireworks during the lunar New Year holidays was banned in the 1970s and early 1980s, says FlorCruz. But as people’s buying power improved, so did fireworks sales increase. “In recent years, many revelers have been killed or maimed in accidents, similar to what happens in [the Philippines],” he adds. “Now setting off fireworks is banned within the Fifth Ring Road in Beijing,” he says, but still allowed in many other areas.

The same fireworks technology first used in Asia gradually spread to Western cultures in Europe and America, first for military use then also for public festivities, even as they followed a separate set of feasts based on the Christian calendar.

For some reason, however, most Western celebratory practices seemed content with aerial fireworks displays and firecracker-less street revelry. In recent decades, Asian cities such as Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have followed suit, banning the private use of fireworks and allowing only officially-sanctioned or professionally-handled fireworks in designated areas.

But even in the Western setting, there are outstanding exceptions that rival the Filipino obsession with untrammeled street firecrackers although these are not New Year-related. Two such examples are the American Fourth of July and, in earlier times, Great Britain’s very political and tumultuous Guy Fawkes Night on or around November 5.

So it isn’t true, after all, that we Filipinos are alone in having acquired and retained this disgusting taste for noisy, smelly, and dangerous firecrackers exploded near at hand. Other cultures were, or still are, equally guilty.

From Rizal’s Noli to present-day Bulacan

However, there remain the questions: How deeply rooted really in Filipino culture is the habit of exploding firecrackers on festive occasions? How did the local fireworks industry develop? Why do we hang on to the habit so religiously, and at such a massive scale, when other countries and cities have gradually mellowed?

Historical sources scarcely mention instances of Chinese sale and use of firecrackers in the Philippines. But it’s safe to surmise that in the earlier centuries of Spanish rule, fireworks must have been available but tightly regulated by colonial authorities since gunpowder was a valuable military supply that must not fall into the hands of unconquered peoples, especially the Moro who still used native cannon weaponry.

However, by the late 19th century, the manufacture, sale and use of celebratory fireworks appear to have started becoming private at least in Manila and nearby provinces.

In Chapter 20 of Dr. Jose Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tangere first published in 1886, for example, which narrates a town meeting to plan the forthcoming town fiesta, one town elder suggests a “great fireworks display”.

“I propose also a great fireworks display. None of these piddling little lights and Roman candles fit for children and young girls. We want large firecrackers and colossal rockets. I propose therefore 200 super-firecrackers at two pesos each and 200 rockets at the same price. We shall order them from the fireworks-makers of Malabon,” the elder said.

To which another town elder retorted: “A two-peso firecracker wouldn’t frighten me. I wouldn’t even hear it. It must be the three-peso kind, at least. Put down 1,000 pesos for 200 firecrackers and 200 rockets.”

In Chapter 63 of the same novel (“Christmas Eve”), Rizal also wrote about a young peasant boy living with his family in an isolated mountain hut, asking his mother getting ready for the town market to buy him firecrackers for Christmas. This was an indication that in those times, firecrackers were no longer a restricted military stock or limited to official rituals, but had become a consumer item—even a peasant boy’s plaything—available in public markets.

The official website of Bulacan province, which contains a brief history of pyrotechnics in the Philippines, claims that the industry had its roots in Bulacan. The website claims that during earlier Spanish times, only specialists were allowed to manufacture, use and handle fireworks, until 1867 when Valentin Sta. Ana “first learned the craft of making fireworks from the parish priest of Santa Maria town.”

According to his grandson Arcadio, the old Sta. Ana patriarch did not pursue the fireworks business because of tight restrictions during the early decades of the U.S. colonial regime. But he taught the craft to his sons Valerio and Fernando, who then set up the Santa Ana Fireworks Factory in 1938 in Sta. Maria, Bulacan during a period when American colonial policy became more relaxed.

After World War II through the 1960s, encouraged by rising consumer demand and good profits, the Sta. Ana clan set up more fireworks companies. Some of their workers who learned the technology also set up their own factories that soon proliferated in various Bulacan towns. Other fireworks factories were later set up in Cavite and Laguna provinces. The highly-regulated industry was dominated by these few companies.

According to the Philippine Pyrotechnics Manufacturers and Dealers Association Inc. (PPMDAI), Marcos illegalized the fireworks industry under martial law, in the fear that rebels would use the technology for combat purposes. But the industry simply continued to thrive underground, fueled by the persistent demand of Filipinos for noisy fiestas and explosive New Year’s Eves. Thus emerged some estimated 800 backyard fireworks shops that did not undergo official regulation.

It would be 20 years later, in 1992, when the government would acknowledge the stubborn persistence of the habit and its business potential, and thus attempt to regulate the industry by legalizing fireworks through RA 7183, the Firecrackers Law. The most successful ones later became confident enough to join international competitions. However, many illegal sweatshops continued to operate unabated.

Bulacan is considered the center of Philippine pyrotechnics, with an estimated 500 manufacturers and 100,000 workers, but there are also backyard firecracker makers in the Visayas, especially in Iloilo and Cebu.

Cultural trait or business-driven?

It appears that apart from its cultural roots, which doesn’t say how extensive the practice was, more recent and business-driven influences are also at work in the persistent and, many say, increasingly self-destructive, firecrackers habit of Filipinos.

True, there is that deep cultural impulse among Filipinos to greet the New Year by making noise on their own and not just passively watch fireworks from afar. Taken alone, however, this cultural need for celebratory noise could so easily be satisfied by non-explosive and thus safer noisemakers such as horns, percussive instruments, and loud blaring music.

Also, unlike other modern Western New Year celebrations that feature centralized fireworks displays and street parties in city centers, the traditional Filipino celebration remains community-oriented in a real physical way. The Filipino New Year is more freely expressed at the neighborhood levels, with entire families including children gathered in the yards and into the streets. Most Filipinos want to be at home in family, clan or neighborhood gatherings at the stroke of midnight. They do not see centralized fireworks displays and street parties in metropolitan centers as good substitutes.

But some observers think this is not a cultural justification for wall-to-wall firecrackers.

Mila D. Aguilar, a writer of note and keen observer of Filipino cultural mores, insists that Spanish and Chinese influences on our New Year’s noise-making practices are only slight. “‘Fiesta’ to us is not fireworks and never was, but just sumptuous eating and drinking,” she says.

Although she concedes that more research is needed, Aguilar suspects that our New Year’s fireworks habit took root “only in the twentieth century, and maybe even the second half of the 20th century and only in Manila and environs, with American commercialism.”

She notes, for example, that in her many years in Mindanao in the 1970s, she did not experience New Year’s Eve fireworks there.

“We can’t say it is a cultural trait or habit. I think the cause is purely economic, with the expansion of the fireworks industry and its manufacturers forever seeking new markets. Pure capitalism is the cause,” Aguilar adds.

“So if we could focus communitarian eating and plain fun for New Year, and simply concentrate organized paputok in the town/barangay plaza, with all other areas forbidden, I think it will be very easy to contain or minimize New Year’s Eve fireworks,” she says.

Aguilar thinks that the adverse impact on an industry that employs 100,000 workers can be minimized by “giving manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers of fireworks especially in Bocaue other means of livelihood,” combined with a long-term and continuous anti-firecrackers education campaign by media, the Department of Education, and other concerned government agencies.

Feminist and human rights activist Edna Aquino, on the other hand, thinks that our New Year firecracker addiction has deep cultural roots, but not due to the influence of the Chinese New Year or Spanish fiesta. Instead, Aquino would focus on “the machismo and strong pagan tendencies in our culture,” while the other factors are just “enablers.”

Aquino’s insight resonates in observable practices among Filipino men during New Year’s Eve. It is such machismo that prefers the explosive noise of the most powerful firecrackers to the traditional banging on pots and pans, which is seen as fit only for women, and party horns which are seen as fit only for kids. In many neighborhoods, the most intense firecracker explosions are also to be seen among men arrayed around tables gulping cases of beer, while women are busy in the kitchen.

Other observers also mention the breakdown of family, institutional, and legal mechanisms that would have at least prevented unsupervised persons, especially children, from playing with increasingly powerful firecrackers. This could explain the increasing number of tragic firecracker accidents that could have been easily prevented even without a total firecracker ban.

The PPMDAI, as the foremost fireworks industry association in the country, insists that legal fireworks factories are willing to follow regulations to “ensure safe and quality products” and “to strictly comply with safety measures.”

In partnership with the police, the PPMDAI has also conducted fireworks safety refresher courses in the different parts of the country. But they complain that the police must exert stricter efforts in going after illegal fireworks factories, claiming that these are the biggest sources of defective and thus accident-prone firecrackers.

Ready for a total ban nationwide?

All factors considered, it appears that the public is not yet ready for a total firecracker ban nationwide, or even just for restricting New Year pyrotechnics to centralized fireworks displays handled by professionals. But local firecracker bans and firecracker-free zones, such as in Davao City and some Metro Manila barangays, may produce lessons for policy-makers and safety advocates.

Meanwhile, the media, government agencies, churches, and other health and safety advocates are continuing their barrage of warnings and safety tips so that the millions of Filipinos may continue to enjoy their deafeningly explosive New Year with less, if not minimal, injuries and damage to property.

The Catholic Church, in particular, has come full circle. In Spanish times a foremost advocate of fireworks during fiestas and other religious feasts, it has now become an anti-firecrackers advocate. In recent days, bishop after bishop has come forward to suggest other ways of greeting the New Year.

As retired Jaro Archbishop Angel Lagdameo, former head of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines said: “I do not forbid [firecrackers]… but money is going to waste. There should be some kind of balance, some kind of frugality when it comes topaputok. Spend the money for something more useful for the coming new year. Certainly food at the table for the poorest of the poor, education for the poorest of the poor.”—KBK/DM, GMANews.TV #

Author’s note: I wrote this piece on December 30, 2010, when I was GMANews.TV city editor, and published by the GMA News Online site on the same day, with additional editing by fellow editor Karl Kaufman (the famous “KBK” who has a fine nose for witty headlines and is unequalled for his ruthlessness in chopping off deadwood writing) and also by Dani Molintas, who worked with Karl and me back then on the graveyard shift. I’m reposting this here by claim of authorship, with a few minor revisions, and with no prejudice to the prior publishing rights of GMA News Online. The original article is at

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