Yanshui was packed with people dressed like androgynous firefighters.
The fireworks festival is famously dangerous and takes place only thirty minutes by train from Tainan city, where I live. Many think of it as something like the Taiwanese Running of the Bulls. The tradition of firing hundreds of thousands of fireworks into the crowd began sometime in the 19th century, when the people of Yanshui appealed to martial god Guan Gong to rid them of the cholera epidemic then raging. Apparently, the celestial general expected to be greeted by fireworks, and that is exactly what his palanquin, carried through the streets, received. The tradition carries on to this day.
A friend joined me in attending the festival. She greatly underestimated the intensity of the fireworks as they pelt into you and simply borrowed my spare helmet, which had no visor, and wrapped a dish towel around her neck. She wore cheap sunglasses to protect her eyes and nothing on her hands, which she generally used to take video with her phone.
I, on the other hand, came with a full-face helmet, multiple towels layered to create a makeshift aventail, a heavy cotton coat, jeans, and leather gloves. Accidentally or not, she was much braver than me.
When we approached the temple, we had not put on any of our heavy gear yet. We expected there to be a place where people were encouraged to suit up, and it was only when we saw that we were surrounded by the aforesaid androgynous firefighters that we realized we were in trouble. The bottle rockets fired from the palanquin and we ducked behind a metal transformer. The rockets screamed and every car alarm within a block began to blare. As the Taiwanese people near us laughed, we tried frantically to put on the helmets, jackets, and gloves. I was hit in the hand by a rocket, which luckily resulted in my only small injury.
Once the rockets stopped flying and exploding at our feet, we resumed following the god on his trek through the town. There were dozens of other displays of fireworks, some for spectators staring at the sky, and some for participants expecting to be hit. The “beehive” firework displays were the most terrifying: They are aimed at the crowd, who turn away from the onslaught despite their gear, hoping to only be hit in the back. People bounce up and during, supposedly to reduce the chance that a rocket becomes embedded in their clothes.
At the biggest display we faced, where we were probably twenty-five feet from the cannons. As the audience turned away, I stupidly prepared to face it full-on. As the rockets flew at me, glancing off my visor and pelting body hard enough to bruise, I noticed my friend running away to hide behind a small makeshift shield that one of the veterans had brought. In the smoke-filled air, the explosions all around me seemed more surreal and magical than dangerous. Only when one impacted my visor right between my eyes, bounced down, and exploded on my feet was I shaken from that dreamy state. I began to jump up and down like the Taiwanese people around me.
After three or four of these experiences, my friend and I decided to return to the old streets we had walked through before and get some beer and snacks. We removed our helmets just in time to be hit by more rockets from a distant beehive.
Between the onslaughts, she noticed a news crew attempting to interview two foreigners who spoke no Chinese. This was her chance to be on TV, so she interjected herself into the interview and pulled me along, stealing their thunder by being a better representative of the foreign population of Taiwan. Her Chinese is better than mine, but I can hold my own. The news crew asked us how long we had been in Taiwan, if we were scared, how many times we had been hit, and so on. Her refrain: 天不怕，地不怕. I fear neither heaven nor earth.
Once we were were safe in the old streets, we bought onion cakes, fried chicken, beer from Russia, sausages, and candied fruit on a stick. We smoked cigarettes to calm our still-frenzied nerves. We returned to the Xinying train station by taxi, bought two tickets to Tainan station, and returned home.
My coat still smells of gunpowder.