It’s 9 a.m. as my bus pulls into the station and I am greeted by what sounds like a bedsheet being ripped apart a millimeter from my ear.
Startled, I jerk upright to see a group of Hunan locals setting off a giant roll of firecrackers right by the coach for no obvious reason. Or maybe it’s just because they can.
I’ve just arrived in Liuyang, Hunan Province, the world’s capital of fireworks.
This Chinese city is the single biggest producer of fireworks on the planet, providing around 60 percent of China’s annual US$ 600 million of pyrotechnic exports.
Made in China, sold across the planet. A roll of standard firecrackers.
Liuyang lights up birthdays, weddings and independence-day celebrations in more than 100 countries across the globe. Odds are those bottle rockets stashed in your closet were made here.
With more than a thousand factories, shops that cater to every tangential need of the industry and little kids running around throwing firecrackers like super balls, it’s hard to contain my excitement.
I have come to meet pyrotechnics-agent-to-the-stars Terry Winkle of Liuyang Flying Dragon Fireworks.
Terry Winkle examines a tube rolling machine in need of adjustment.
Winkle’s firm manufactures and supplies fireworks for some of the world’s best-known brands and if he can’t make it for you, he knows someone who can.
As we head to one of his factories we pass several impromptu pre-lunch displays along the side of the river. It seems that in Liuyang anytime is a good time to light a few off.
The candy man can
The factory is the pyrotechnic equivalent of Willy Wonka’s. Building after building is full of workers doing everything from making casings and packing clay plugs, to mixing chemicals and loading shells.
I begin to feel overwhelmed as my repressed boyhood fascination with fireworks is rekindled.
A worker drops powdered clay into launch tubes before ramming it in place with a hydraulic press.
We start in the tube-rolling room, where the cardboard tubes that are staple components in the majority of consumer fireworks are made. All I can think is whether or not I’ll get to see where they mix the powder.
Winkle does not disappoint. We pass a giant “No Smoking” sign as we head into the restricted area.
He shows me the drying room, where rack upon rack of pyrotechnic effects called “stars” that look like balls of dark chocolate are gently heated to drive away solvents used in the mixing process.
“This is what a drying room smells like,” says Winkle as I inhale the heady odor of charcoal, acetone and sulfur.
I try not to imagine what might happen if an errant spark were to enter the picture.
The factory is expansive, complete with work areas, a dining hall and a huge pond that supplies water to the plant and fresh fish to hungry employees.
We pass a giant tumbler being used to coat rice hulls with black powder, a traditional Chinese bursting charge for shells, before we head to an assembly room where tubes are fused and loaded.
Stars and rice hulls spill out of a consumer shell.
Most of what Winkle makes are known as “cakes,” bundles of small mortar tubes that each fire off an effect or two.
When the cake is lit they go off sequentially, creating a professional-looking display from a small box.
They are called “cakes” because the finished product, complete with colorful wrapping paper looks like, well, a birthday cake.
Finished cakes retail in the United States for about US$ 10-100, depending on the size and type.
Everybody’s doing it
I visit several other factories, including one making larger display shells for professional use.
These can be anywhere from about five centimeters to a meter or more in diameter and are fired out of reloadable fiberglass launch tubes placed on the ground — the biggest shells can cost more than US$ 10,000 each.
Because Liuyang has so many factories they tend to specialize in different things. Some just make black powder (a key ingredient) or fuses, while others make consumer items like bottle rockets and firecrackers.
Pyrotechnic rolling drums for sale on the streets of Liuyang.
Most work is still done by hand, predominately by women who are paid an average of about RMB 3,000 (US$ 500) per month.
While these factories are nestled in the hills and safely separated from town, the city center is full of smaller operations that produce the machinery, tools and non-flammable components needed in the trade.
As Liu Zhourong, president of Changsha MeiTai Fireworks explains to me, about 60 percent of the region’s population is involved in the fireworks industry.
While I look out the window at his Mercedes-Benz, I realize that there really must be gold in pyrotechnics.
“Fireworks are the easiest way to get rich in Liuyang,” boasts the general manager, surnamed Xu, at nearby Sunrise Fireworks.
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