Blessed to be a witness

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Friday, February 11

Half a million people saying "wah"

The primary reason for departing when we did was to get to see the Chinese New Year fireworks. Tonight we achieved this goal, and I'm pleased to say that, for once, something I have been hyping up for ages truly lived up to expectations.

The skyline of Hong Kong city is, to my mind, the most spectacular in the world. Unlike Manhattan, which it most closely resembles, there are only two aspects to the skyscrapers: because they're framed by a line of very tall hills, you can really only see its entirety across the harbour from the tip of the Kowloon peninsula, or from the top of the hills looking down on it. And it is the hills that give the skyline its scale and grandeur by providing a frame of reference.

Add to this magnificence some of the best and largest fireworks in the world, and you have a sight that pretty much defies description.

The fireworks displays in Hong Kong are absolutely awe-inspiring. So much so that pretty much everyone who can gets down to the harbour's edge to witness them. We pathetic tourists, however, decided that rather than standing for hours being jostled by huge crowds to get a good view at the waterfront, we'd find a vantage point where we could see the entire thing in comfort. This required elevating ourselves several storeys in order to see over the top of the planetarium and concert halls. Earlier in the day I'd spotted "Morton's Steakhouse", on the fourth floor of the Sheraton Hotel, with a fine harbour view. When we arrived with no booking, two hours before the display, we were fortunate enough to get a seat that was pretty close to the windows.

Then I saw the menu. 50 yoyo for a steak with no trimmings... bear in mind we'd already spent a fortune on breakfast. But sod it, I thought, you don't see this very often, and in a bit of creative accounting I decided that, since we hadn't had lunch, the expense was vaguely justifiable. (Of course this was a lie: our budget for lunch would be more like three euro each; I truly hope this state of denial departs soon, or we'll find ourselves on the streets of Shanghai turning tricks for noodles in a relatively short time.)

So with lobster bisque, creamed spinach and one massive, astonishingly expensive steak chasing down our gargantuan breakfasts, we nursed our bottles of beer, and watched one of the most mind-bending visual spectacles on the planet.

"Will I be able to hear them?" asked M, since we were inside. "I don't think there'll be any worry about that," I replied smugly.

After a long excited wait, it began. The fireworks were all launched from three barges in the harbour. The explosions started around the height of the tops of the buildings, and then rose, and rose, and rose, getting larger and larger all the time. And indeed there was no worry of not hearing them: the windows of the restaurant immediately started to shake with the booming ordnance.

The tallest of Hong Kong's buildings are approaching 300 metres: for perspective, if they were lying down, that's about three minutes' brisk walk. As the display continued, the spherical crysanthemum bursts began to double the size of the largest buildings, and the delay between the airburst and the boom started to exceed a second, making them, at my reckoning, nearly a mile away, mostly vertically.

When we English-speakers see firework displays, we express our amazement with words such as "ooh", "aah", and "wow". In Cantonese, they say "wah". After the more spectacular explosions, we could hear hundreds of thousands of people below us in the street, all simultaneously saying "wah". But at the really amazing ones, the "wah" turned to cheering and screaming. It was like a rock concert.

And it continued to get bigger and louder. Blue spheres with silver rings inside them. Red spheres that turned white, then dissolved into dozens of sparkling, twirling fountains. Blue rings with green figure-of-eights. Giant expanding Saturns, hundreds of metres across, now rattling the windows in their frames. The balls of fire leaping towards us from out of the black sky, filling our entire vision, eventually became hallucinogenic in their magnificence. Behind the display, lights whizzed crazily up and down the skyscrapers, and searchlights and lasers fanned through the smoke.

Down at harbour level, white balls of fire shot from the barges at acute angles a mere few hundred metres above the water, while the sea around them was filled with crackling white fire - underwater fireworks, something I've never seen before.

As the 23-minute display drew to a close, one massive blast of pyrotechnics faded out to reveal thousands of bright red lanterns floating gently out of the sky. I've never actually been moved by a fireworks display before, but the silent and gentle contrast to the earlier mayhem was beautiful. And then the finale: hundreds, then thousands, of fireworks, all in red and white, the colours of good luck, exploding across the entire sky simultanously. An extraordinary cacophony of sound and light continued at overwhelming pace for two minutes, and then stopped dead, leaving silence and a pall of smoke drifting gently across the harbour.

The awed crowds gave one final cheer and left quietly. It was an hour before the vast numbers of people flowing back into Kowloon had cleared enough to for us to get back to our hotel over the street.

I have banged on about the Hong Kong fireworks for years to anyone who will listen, but M, who is usually the first to point out my bullshit, conceded in a state of high emotion, that for once I was right.

Happy Year of the Rooster! (Or Year of the Cock, which I find much more amusing.)

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To comment on this, or just to say hello, mail me at jim@crowaptok.com.