All Their Hard Work Goes Up in Smoke

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG)  |  Story and photos by David Dickstein
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Inside the Hengda Fireworks factory in China, workers add the final elements to Phantom Fireworks’ best-selling Brew Haha.

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Illuminati Triangle Fountain, debuting this season in California, is tested at Hengda Fireworks in China.

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG) - On a rare private tour inside one of the world’s biggest fireworks factories, deep in China’s mountainous Hunan Province where pyrotechnics were invented over a millennium ago, an American journalist surprises his hosts by veering off the footpath on the sprawling grounds. The large single-story building with busy workers inside looks too intriguing not to make a pop-in.

“Oh, excuse me … OK, OK, go ahead,” chirps Hengda Fireworks’ factory manager Wang Qunying in translated Mandarin, smiling and showing no signs of concern over what the writer for Messenger Publishing Group may see inside. The impromptu detour causes a bit of a stir for the 35 or so employees inside. All women and wearing company-issued blue coats to offset a springtime chill, their surprised reaction could be more about their boss’ presence and less a rare Caucasian visitor with a camera. Within a minute, however, the spacious assembly room is back in full production for a visual this assertive foreigner finds absolutely fascinating, not unlike how Charlie felt upon first sight of the diligent Oompa-Loompas.

What revelers throughout Sacramento County will light off and be dazzled with for maybe a minute or two requires an army of people and dozens of hours to manufacture. The process involves numerous stages, mostly by hand, and if the work isn’t tedious, it’s perilous.

The roomful of hard-working women is where the final stages are performed. Even though they’re working with explosives, the task of mixing chemicals and filling cardboard tubes with powder is done by individuals working solo in isolated bunker-like buildings elsewhere on the grounds. It’s a messy job mixing the 400 tons of black powder Hengda will need this year, but someone’s got to do it -- for the equivalent of $500 to $600 a month, a decent salary in the Hunan Province.

While some of the assembly department workers adhere fuses and tissue paper to the tubes, all manufactured on the premises, others at long tables a few feet away are giving the fireworks their final shape by fitting the pre-cut cardboard pieces together.

The stage before boxing, storing and shipping is labeling, done pretty much the same way for over 1,000 years here -- with bowls of liquid glue, brushes and a lot of stamina for assembly line-type repetition.

For two diligent assemblers in the corner, that and cardboard pieces to form a handle are the supplies needed to put the finishing touches on a beer stein-shaped fountain named Brew Haha, one of Phantom Fireworks’ top sellers in California. Since fountains, spinners, novelties and smoke items are the only types legally sold in the Golden State, there’s a decent chance these ladies’ handiwork will be delighting folks 6,500 miles away. For Sacramento County and parts of Placer County, the legal selling and lighting period is June 28 through July 4.

Brew Haha, designed and exported by Panda Fireworks for Phantom, is one of many U.S.-bound pyrotechnic passengers Hengda sends on slow boats from China, which makes 100 percent of what California will be celebrating with on America’s birthday. Located in Liling, which together with Liuyang 50 miles away are the collective heart of China’s $4 billion fireworks industry, Hengda is also home of Phantom’s popular Funky Monkey, Moondance Premiere and King of Bling, along with fountains bearing the TNT Fireworks brand.

As the factory tour moves away from operations and toward the entrance so we can safely light a sample of products, including Phantom’s Illuminati Triangle Fountain debuting in California this season, out of nowhere a throng of chatty blue-jacketed workers joins us on the walkway. It’s lunchtime for the factory’s 400 employees, and they’re scurrying off to the chow line. The faster they eat the more they earn because pay is based on output.

The herd of mostly female workers keeps its distance from the tour group except for one playfully curious woman in probably her late 50s. She yells something lighthearted in Mandarin to friendly colleagues as she catches up with the Caucasian reporter. Feeling puckish, the language-limited foreigner startles the worker when he stops in front of her and shouts, “Wo ai ni!” which means “I love you.” The woman is first taken aback, then breaks into laughter as she clutches her heart.

The affable employee might have thought the visitor was kidding around, but after gaining a better appreciation of the intricate, monotonous and hazardous labor it takes to make something so dazzling, yet fleeting, this newly schooled, fireworks-loving American meant each of those three little words.