The annual siege of Beijing has almost passed.
Chinese Lunar New Year tradition calls for loud noises to frighten away evil spirits, and each year the nation that invented fireworks indulges gleefully in brilliant nighttime displays to celebrate the biggest holiday of the year. That celebration has been even more jubilant in Beijing since 2005, when authorities reversed a 12-year ban on fireworks inside city limits, albeit only during the New Year period and still with some restrictions.
Still, red-roofed kiosks carrying fireworks with names like Ten Thousand Sounds pop up on street corners starting in mid-January, fuelling light-and-sound extravaganzas that leave the city sounding like a war zone for the better part of a month. Most families spend at least a few hundred yuan (less than $100) each year on firecrackers, this year ushering in a Year of the Dragon they hope will bring prosperity.
"Shooting fireworks and firecrackers is our tradition. When they explode in the air, it brings the feeling of the Spring Festival," said vendor Wang Yong, 34, complaining sales at his kiosk in the central-eastern neighbourhood of Shuangjing were down this year -- perhaps a reflection of the country's slowing economic growth.
Over the years, the celebrating has taken a toll. In 2009, the future site of a Mandarin Oriental hotel in Beijing, adjacent to the city's iconic new CCTV tower, was destroyed after a fireworks display gone wrong; last year, a five-star hotel in the city of Shenyang burned down.
This year, major landmarks have so far emerged unscathed by the nightly display, though firework-induced clouds of smoke on the first night of the festival sent Beijing's new pollution monitoring equipment haywire, spiking readings of fine particulate matter – known as PM2.5 – up to unhealthy levels even after the daytime air had been cleared by gentle winds, lighter traffic and factory shutdowns for the holiday.
Beijing's municipal health department has reported one dead, two amputations and 223 other injuries from wayward fireworks; Tongren Hospital, the city's leading ophthalmology hospital, put 14 doctors and surgeons on duty in its emergency room to handle an expected surge in eye injuries.
Some 183.7 tons of red paper scraps, leftovers from firework casings, have littered city streets like confetti, according to the Beijing Environmental Sanitation Engineering Group, requiring more than 5,000 street sweepers to clean up – though that was, reportedly, three tons less than last year's mess.
Twenty water tank trailers were reported to have been kept on standby to fight celebration-related fires.
"Every year there are some accidents, with dead or injured -- it's quite normal," said Fang Yuanyuan, 46, a Beijinger whose family spent about 1,000 yuan, or about $160, on fireworks for four separate nights during the festival, with their last show planned for Lantern Day on Feb. 6. It's partly for tradition, and partly to pray for an auspicious year, ahead of her son writing grueling university entrance examinations this spring.
"The old generation always said it was for chasing away the evil ghosts," she said. "Now, some do it because the kids love it, some want to create a mood; some think you can't celebrate the New Year without them, some do it for auspiciousness and some out of superstition."