It’s just past midnight. In a few moments all hell breaks loose.
Twenty feet ahead of me and a few hundred fellow festival-goers stands a crate two stories high and a city block wide. This specially-built crate is called a castle, and it's stuffed to the roof with bottle rockets laid on horizontal slats and pointing in all directions. Soon the crate will be set on fire, and explosive bolts will shoot in all directions.
The crowd solemnly awaits their fate. After all, this is a religious festival.
Welcome to the Beehive Rocket Festival in Yanshui, Taiwan, an annual dance with disfigurement that’s ranked as the fifth most dangerous festival in the world.
This castle about to explode before us is of medium size. Others exploding around town and through the night are larger. Waiting for a medium sized castle to rain fiery projectiles, I’m hard pressed to see how an even larger explosive-filled box would be a better thing. Then again, I’m hard pressed to see anything through the smoke outside and fog inside of my full-face helmet. The helmet, along with gloves and a thick fire jacket (on loan from the Yanshui fire department) are key protective elements. Along with most other revelers, I also have a towel wrapped around my neck. This is to prevent a stray rocket from coming in through the helmet neck and taking out an eye.
Bearing carriages holding statues of the gods, devotees occupy the other end of the defensive spectrum, relying on a loincloths, a single towel over their eyes, and pure faith for protection. My one attempt at conversation with a devotee is rebuffed, and I suspect the man is drunk or in a trance. Either would be sensible given the circumstances.
Yanshui’s Beehive Rocket Festival dates back to the Qing Dynasty, when the people of the town beseeched Guang-gong, a local deity of the Wu Temple to protect them from a plague that had swept the island. To win the deity’s favour, the people of Yanshui employed a pyrotechnic display the likes of which Taiwan had never seen. The plague soon abated, and the festival has been an annual occurrence ever since.
The scores of multi-storey castles exploding around town are the festival’s main attractions, but there are dangerous appetisers as well. In the hours after sundown, stretchers bearing Guang-gong and other gods are paraded through town. At one intersection a crate of firecrackers heralds their arrival. On another next street a reveller points a burning box containing several dozen Roman Candles into the crowd. On still another, military-grade sparklers are hung across the street from a string and ignited, showering those passing beneath with a curtain of silver sparks.
Back at our castle it is almost impossible to tell through the noise and smoke whether any individual spark or boom heralds the ignition of our personal box of explosives. I open my visor to wipe away condensation in time to see fire shooting from the castle’s roof.
Someone screams Lai Le! - it’s coming! - as flames begin to ignite rockets pointed in all directions. I slam my visor shut as the rockets slam into my helmet, jacket and hands, whizzing past in numbers too high to count.
I step forward for a closer view, camera set to video on handheld tripod. A series of rapid fire hits causes the most basic animal instinct, that thing that tells all sentient beings to move away from and not towards exploding things, to kick in. Apparently I am not alone. The crowd has also turned en masse and are now doing a strange hopping dance.
The dance is strangely subdued. Where one might expect whoops of joy, there is only fiery stoicism. The tattooed devotee, hunched over his god-carriage, winces through his trance, his back blistering in the onslaught. As tempo from the exploding castle grows increasingly violent, individual rocket squeals and explosions seem to merge into a powerful buzz. The meaning behind the name 'beehive rocket' is now very clear.
The peak buzz lasts for less than a minute before tapering back into individual screams and pops, and soon even these fade into fresher explosions coming from elsewhere. Half deaf and mildly burned, I make my way past stalls selling food, beer and betel nut.
I catch glimpse of an even larger castle being pulled from a side alley and realise the night is far from over.