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British-Chinese cultural mash-up may explain B.C.’s fondness for Halloween fireworks

While fireworks remain a noisy Halloween fixture, they are now often subject to regulation or bans
A group of young men shoot off fireworks on Halloween in Vancouver, on Saturday, October 31, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Vancouver historian and artist Michael Kluckner remembers saving up his pocket money as a child for three things: rides at the Pacific National Exhibition, Christmas presents and Halloween firecrackers.

Kluckner said he would visit Chinatown grocery stores with his brother to stock up on fireworks in October, in a tradition that is particular to British Columbia.

“We kids would get dressed up a little bit and go door to door, trick or treat and get that done as quickly as we could and come back and then get out the firecrackers and start letting them off. We managed not to lose an eye or get blown up,” Kluckner laughed.

“There would be some real idiots who would throw the firecrackers right at each other, but mostly we would throw them out onto the street or in the garden and see how much dirt we could move.”

Fireworks have long been part of Halloween in B.C.’s Lower Mainland and historians suggest the tradition may involve a combination of English and Chinese heritage.

While they remain a noisy Halloween fixture in many communities, they are now often subject to regulation. The City of Vancouver, for example, bans their use by the general public.

Kluckner, who grew up in the Vancouver neighbourhood of Kerrisdale in the 1950s, said it wasn’t until much later that he realized fireworks were not a universal Halloween tradition.

“I remember calling around, trying to find anybody who knew of another place where this happened and just couldn’t come up with anything,” said Kluckner, who is also an author of several books about Vancouver’s history.

Sabina Magliocco, a folklorist and professor of sociological anthropology at the University of British Columbia, said Halloween has been a time for mischief and vandalism across Canada.

But Magliocco traces the B.C. penchant for fireworks back to the Nov. 5 British celebration of Guy Fawkes Night, also known as fireworks night.

“Here in British Columbia, we had a lot of immigrants who came from England specifically,” said Magliocco.

Guy Fawkes Night marks the anniversary of the discovery of a plot to blow up the House of Parliament in London in 1605. Fawkes was caught under the parliament building with barrels of gunpowder, and later executed.

Now Guy Fawkes Night is mainly celebrated in the U.K. by lighting up bonfires and fireworks.

“This (tradition) came over to British Columbia with colonists from England. Now, remember that Halloween night is actually really not that far away from Nov. 5,” said Magliocco.

“In fact, in the past, from the end of October to the early days of November, that was ripe for doing different kinds of mischief.”

She said the British tradition got “mushed up” with North American Halloween culture, granting the West Coast a unique Halloween experience.

“So, it’s because of the immigration history here in B.C. that we have this maintenance of very English traditions,” said Magliocco.

Kluckner agreed with the theory that English settlers brought the fireworks tradition of Guy Fawkes Night here, but there’s also a crossover with Chinese cultures.

Chinese Canadian immigrants introduced fireworks to other British Columbians, thanks to their use at Lunar New Year parades and other celebrations, he said.

“For the availability of the firecrackers, I think the enterprising Chinese Canadian merchants just brought them in around that time and it took off from there,” he said.

“If you think of Vancouver 100 years ago, Chinese immigrants were mainly in Chinatown, but they are kind of scattered around. In big houses in the West End, they have Chinese cooks and servants.

“They would give servants a day or a couple of days off at Chinese New Year and they would go down to Chinatown and there would be all the fireworks, parades and firecrackers (that) got into the wider community.”

Over the decades, fire departments in the province have warned of the dangers of fireworks, including severe injuries or starting a blaze.

Numerous communities have banned their use completely, restricted them to Halloween night or allowed only technicians to purchase permits.

—Nono Shen, The Canadian Press

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