Beijing was awfully quiet this Chinese New Year’s Eve

There was a time, years ago, when Chinese New Year’s Eve in Beijing was the world’s most bombastic celebration of existence, a collective yell held for three straight hours amid concussions of light and racket. Because here we were, we declared, right here. Earth shook heaven. I remember forked lightning, fractals of red, blue, and orange, air rent with the shape of sound. It felt surreal to be centered in this steady beat of a burgeoning and explosive declaration, ours, that we had survived and would survive yet (Do your worst!), and yet it felt right. If this seems like a poor conceit — Man speaks to Nature — so be it, I don’t know how else to describe it: to be caught up in something so furious and chaotic and human-made and mad.

Eventually, those days will be past, as we insist on insisting and whingers continue to whinge — about pollution, etc. Eventually, as on pedestrian streets refurbished for tourists, Chinese New Year’s fireworks will be launched pro forma, a nod to another forgotten tradition.

Well, the time has come. The fireworks are gone. There’ve been a few crackles and pops in the distance, but Beijing is mostly silent tonight.

The city-center fireworks ban — issued in the name of pollution reduction and affecting more than 400 Chinese cities — is working.

Many fireworks retailers — like others within Beijing’s so-called low-end population — have been driven from the city, forced to figure out their livelihoods from the outside. If it wasn’t obvious before, let’s just say it: the city is being returned to an older form, one with fewer people, lighter traffic, better air — these are all desirable on paper, but the city that “true Beijingers” are getting back isn’t the dynamic, multidimensional, gritty metropolis that once publicly and proudly aspired to be part of the international community. Those who have been here long enough have all witnessed a gradual yet sure transformation: this place is getting older, more conservative, and homogenous.

Maybe, in practical terms, fireworks are too insignificant to mention. After all, the real concern is the government’s scraping of this place, using skyline beautification campaigns and steady-as-she-goes demolitions, co-opting and straight discouraging underground or alternative culture, enforcing conformity, and installing ever-more sophisticated controls on speech. In this context, the fireworks ban can serve as nothing more than a symbol.

But what a symbol it is, representing the human individual’s untethered impulse to speak at — if not necessarily to — the governing bodies above.

Here’s what the fireworks looked like in 2010, in a little amateur video I made:

I embed this one only because it’s mine, but search YouTube and you’ll find many more. This was a time when any fool could point a camera at the sky and capture footage to make one’s jaw drop and palms go skyward as if to say, How can anyone possibly ignore this?

In 2015, amid rumors of fireworks restrictions in the pipeline, people hit the streets on the eve of the new lunar year knowing they were near the end of a tremendous, unique tradition. The city was already changing around that time, in subtle yet real ways, for people had grown wary of excess and weary of exuberance. But Chinese New Year’s night in 2015 was a good one — if not a full throwback to years past, at least a spectacle in itself. This was nothing to sneeze at:

For now, those days are over. Maybe I shouldn’t complain. Tonight it’s peaceful, it’s quiet, it’s safe — walking down the street won’t bring the risk of a bottle rocket exploding in my face, car alarms aren’t getting triggered by explosives, and tall buildings will remain mostly safe from fire. New York is the city that never sleeps, but here’s the skyline of a city that does, on its most festive day of the year, no less:

Is it unreasonably nostalgic for me to say we’re missing something? I know, I know, it’s just fireworks, and if I wanted it so badly I could GTFO beyond Fifth Ring Road or all the way to Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong. But we’ve been asked to cede a lot in the past year, two years, three years, including parts of our culture and bits of ourselves, so entwined as they are with this place, and I can’t help but think this is yet another one of those things along those lines — I’m going to call it a form of expression — that is being confiscated with no promise of a fair return. Yet again, the people have to accept what they’re given, bunk with their lot, bottle up, keep all of it in. When it get released, as it will eventually, it’ll be louder than ever. I just hope nothing burns.