The Story Behind Why CNY Firecrackers Were Banned in Singapore


“When I was in primary school, the Pan Island Expressway (PIE) was being built. The soil beneath PIE was still being dug. Then, fire crackers were not banned. We would set them off in the PIE construction site since the ground was flat and very wide. It was also perfect for flying kites.” My father, a 52 year old Singaporean who grew up in a kampung, recalls in a mixture of Mandarin and Hokkien.

Fire crackers used to be a crucial part of Chinese festivities in Singapore. However, following the partial ban on March 1970, the activity became wholly banned in August 1972 when the Dangerous Fireworks Act was enforced.

“I guess it was quite fun because we had not much games to play back then. However, the fire crackers were quite a nuisance. They were dangerous, like mini bombs. When people decided to get creative or play irresponsibly, things can go wrong. For example, some kids like to light the fire crackers while still grabbing on to it. If you let go a fraction of a second too late, you’ll blow up your hand. 

Firecrackers being set off in Chinatown. (Source)

In HDB buildings, some cek ark (evil) people will even throw firecrackers out of their window as a prank. This burns your neighbour’s clothes that are hanging from the clothes pole and can start a fire. Some bullies even threw small, individual firecrackers at other people to scare them.”

His concerns on the dangers of fire crackers were not unfounded. During Chinese New Year in 1970, over $1,000,000 worth of crackers were fired. On Chap Goh Meh in particular, also known as the 15th night of the new year and the final day of Chinese New Year, four people were severely burnt by fire crackers and passed away in the hospital over two days. The accident also burned over $1,000,000 worth of property.

Locals called for an inquiry into the manufacture of crackers, composition of cracker powder, and increased police patrols to arrest those who fired the fire crackers indiscriminately. Local manufacturers also seeked the police’s help to investigate further on the country of origin and brand of these firecrackers.

“Fire crackers were probably banned in the 1970s, maybe 1978? But many people would just smuggle them from Malaysia anyway. They would set it off abruptly in the middle of the night. Back then, the police were not everywhere in kampungs. By the time the police came, the crime scene would have been evacuated. The only thing left is a floor of red paper shreds, something like remaining shells of the fire crackers.”

A ground covered in fire cracker shells. (Source)

“There were sometimes even a hole in the ground. This happens when some kids decide to tie up a lot of firecrackers together, or if they wrap them up with many many layers of newspapers glued together. Holding the fire crackers with a lot of newspapers can produce a much louder and powerful popping sound. They will light the fire crackers from as far as possible using a lit incense stick.

After the police fail to catch the culprit, there will be a newspaper report the next day reminding people about the fines associated with fire crackers. It was probably until the 1990s before firecrackers were really gone.”

It was not difficult to believe that the eradication of fire crackers took some time. When the total ban on firecrackers first came about in 1972, offenders would have to pay a fine not exceeding $5,000, serve imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or both. However, this was not strictly enforced. From 1987 to 1988, however, complaints surrounding the illegal discharge of fireworks increased from 721 to almost 4, 000 cases. In 1988, the Dangerous Fireworks (Amendment) Act became law and punishment for contravention was increased substantially to further deter possible offenders.

It definitely took time for Chinese Singaporeans to stop setting off firecrackers. This is unsurprising given that the activity is closely associated with Chinese culture and traditions. For instance, Chap Goh Meh was a time when cracker wars were stirred. Tycoons from rival groups typically flaunted their wealth and reputation by letting off strings and strings of fire crackers on the streets.

Residents setting off fire crackers in 1959. (Source)

“Setting off fire crackers after midnight on Chu Jiu (9th night of the new year) is a Hokkien tradition for the devoted who want to bai ti gong (pray to the heaven god). The 15th is for teochews to celebrate yuan xiao jie (Lantern Festival).

After fire crackers were banned, we could not use it during Chinese New Year, Chinese weddings, and celebrations in temples. In the beginning, people used to play electric fire crackers with fake electronic popping music but it sounded terrible, absolutely terrible. It became rather meaningless, so that stopped.”

When asked if he misses firecrackers, my Dad immediately replied with a negative. “It can be fun or nostalgic for some people, but there are too many negative consequences. Those who were left out of the celebrations, or have young children trying to sleep at night, or sick elderly trying to get some rest will find fire crackers a complete nuisance.”

He is not wrong. Fire crackers are not only incredibly loud and bright, but also produce heavy clouds of smoke. Vehicles passing by even need to wind up their windows to prevent the smoke from suffocating them, as well as to prevent fire crackers from entering and blowing up inside their cars by mistake. Beyond pranksters and bullies, people also tend to drink alcohol during the festivities. It can be very dangerous for them and the people around them if they were to still set off firecrackers.

“When I was a kid, I preferred fireworks instead of fire crackers. They are still dangerous and can cause fires if you do not aim them properly into the sky, but they are not as noisy and disruptive as firecrackers, and are a lot more beautiful. There are many different types of fireworks and you can buy them at convenience stores. A 10 minute firework display would have costed about… $10? Which is something like today’s $50. Of course, it will be more expensive closer to Chinese New Year.”

My Dad is thankful that firecrackers and fireworks are now both banned. “These are all very dangerous weapons when misused. It was used by people to celebrate something or show off their wealth in the past. Because there were no control, people could set them off anywhere and everywhere. Setting up a rule forces people to respect each other by following that rule. And because they respect their own pockets, they are likely to follow the rule to avoid fines.”

That being said, proponents of fire crackers need not resort to stepping foot out of Singapore’s borders to do so. On March 2019, V-more e-commerce celebrated its first anniversary with the longest balloon firecracker popping relay. A 450-person line was formed, with each person holding one or two balloons. They then popped the balloons in sequence to mimic actual firecrackers.

A balloon fire crackers popping relay. (source)

This safe and creative way of giving a nod to our tradition is definitely a step forward in the right direction.    


Author

Vanessa Ng

Contributor

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