Updated February 2017
The Part of Taiwan Lantern Festival that Many People Don’t Know About
February 11, 2017 marks the first day of Lantern Festival, the 15th day after Chinese New Year, based on the lunar calendar. It also marks the day of a very unique and dangerous festival that I have personally participated in, the Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival.
A Brief History of Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival
Considered one of the top 5 most dangerous festivals in the world, the Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival is said to have originated in the late 1800s. A 20-year cholera epidemic had been afflicting Yanshui, which was a major trading port near Tainan (Taiwan’s former capital) in southern Taiwan.
At that time, medicine was limited and quite primitive, so Yanshui residents, with the help of a local temple priest, pleaded for help from Guan Gong (also Kuan Kung or Guan Di), the God of War, to bring an end to the epidemic and to save them. It is believed that Guan Gong answered their plea and agreed to help them, but that he requested that his spirit be welcomed with fireworks.
So the residents paraded a palanquin carrying Guan Gong around the city while his faithful followers set off thousands of fireworks. They believed that the fireworks chased away the evil spirits that attached themselves to people, making them sick, and that if a person was hit by one of the fireworks, he or she would have good luck.
Apparently, this worked, because the cholera epidemic did end, and it’s believed that the sulfur from all the fireworks somehow killed the cholera bacteria, and that the noise from the fireworks scared the rats away. Whether that part is true or just folklore, the residents of Yanshui have continued the firework tradition to this day.
Present Day Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival
I went to Yanshui for the 2012 Beehive Fireworks Festival. It was a lot of fun, but it was definitely a crazy experience.
The “beehive” consists of a large rack-like structure on wheels, called a gun wall – think of something similar to a rack at a bakery that holds all the trays of bread, only much bigger – and on each rack are lined thousands of fireworks like bottle rockets.
The smaller gun walls hold around 4,000 rockets, and the larger ones hold around 6,000. (Although I didn’t see that many, I’ve heard reports that there are around 200 of these gun walls that are used each year in Yanshui!) The gun walls are then wheeled around in the streets, and they periodically stop in front of businesses and then are lit.
Once lit, all these thousands of fireworks go off at once, horizontally into the crowd of people, creating the effect of a noisy beehive of squealing bottle rockets trailed by orange streaks of light. The idea is that you actually want to get hit by them, because it means you will have good luck in the coming year! Many onlookers watch the event from a safe distance, but the more adventurous people, like myself, try to get as close to the fireworks as possible.
Check out the video I shot during the event. Partway through, you can see me look down a couple times with the camera. I got hit twice by the rockets, and the second time I looked down, I was checking to see if I was on fire, ha ha. Also note that it’s part of the “ritual” for people to hop up and down, as you’ll see in the video.
7 Tips to Prepare for (and Survive) the Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival
The festival is a lot of fun, and I would definitely do it again sometime, but if you want to fully participate, it’s not something you can just show up to without preparation. I was lucky enough to go with Taiwanese friends who knew all the tricks, but if it’s your first time, here are some tips to keep yourself safe while enjoying the full experience.
1. Cover EVERYTHING From Head to Toe
This is the most important thing if you plan to actually participate in the beehive. Make sure, from the top of your head, down to your feet, that nothing is exposed, and wear non-flammable clothing like cotton. Don’t let any skin remain exposed. The fireworks will burn anything they hit, including your skin and your clothes. Just like that little bit of toothpaste or that squeeze of lemon that always ends up in your eye, those whizzing fireworks find their way into the tiniest exposed places.
2. Wear a Helmet with a Visor
You must protect your head and your face. The best way is with a helmet that has a full-face visor. Then, attach a towel to the helmet that wraps completely around your neck. Not only do the fireworks burn, but they also hurt when they hit you.
If you’ve ever played paintball, it feels about like that only worse, and the fireworks definitely leave bruises. So it’s important to protect your head, and especially your face and eyes. The towel also prevents any fireworks from going up inside your helmet where they can explode and do more serious damage to your hearing or eyesight.
3. DO NOT Wear a Plastic Rain Coat!
A lot of people wear their plastic rain coats as their “protection” from the fireworks. However, I strongly advise that you DON’T do this. What happens is the fireworks hit the raincoats, which melts the plastic, and then the plastic melts onto the skin and continues to burn because it can’t be quickly or easily removed.
In Yanshui, there are a lot of police and paramedics at almost every corner with hoses ready to put little fires out on people (no joke), but my friends and I also saw and heard about A LOT of people with severe burns because of plastic raincoats.
Although it’ll feel hot with all the layers (southern Taiwan is quite warm this time of year), it’s better to wear jeans (because they’re thick and made of cotton) and some kind of cotton jacket that won’t catch fire or melt.
4. Wear a Mask or Scarf Over Your Nose and Mouth
The air gets super smoky and full of tiny debris from the exploded fireworks. If you have sensitive eyes, you might even consider wearing goggles. I wear contacts, but I didn’t wear goggles, and although I was okay with just the helmet and visor, my eyes did start to burn after a while.
5. Duct Tape is Your Friend
As I mentioned above, a lot of people tape towels to their helmets to protect their neck area. If you’re planning to get closer to the fireworks, it’s also a good idea to tape the wrists of your gloves to your jacket if you can’t tuck them in.
If your pants have a big opening at the bottom and don’t quite cover your shoes, I also recommend taping around your ankles. You’d be surprised where those little firecrackers can go. I wore tall rain boots under my pants, and I got hit on my boots several times.
6. Bring Something to Cover or Protect Your Camera or Phone
You’ll definitely want to get pictures and video of the whole experience, but those little firecrackers pack a punch and can break or damage your phone or camera. Just like when you go to the beach and use a waterproof cover for your camera or smartphone, I highly recommend using a protective cover when you attend the Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival.
Plus, in addition to the smoke, it gets really dusty from all the firework debris that covers everything. You don’t want that getting inside your camera lens. So cover up your gear and then figure out ahead of time how to take video and pictures with your gloves on. Don’t take your gloves off when the fireworks are going off.
7. Recruit Your Friends to Join You!
Lastly, the Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival is an event best enjoyed with a group of friends. Who else is going to duct tape you into your space suit?!
If there is one really unique and crazy thing I have done in Taiwan, it’s the Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival. If you can go, definitely do it, but be sure to invite your friends!
If you have any questions or suggestions you’d like to share, please do so in the comments. This post will be updated as pertinent, so your feedback is welcome and appreciated! Have a wonderful and safe time at the Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival!