The Man Behind the World's Most Spectacular Lunar New Year Fireworks - Atlas Obscura
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The Man Behind the World’s Most Spectacular Lunar New Year Fireworks

View of the 2012 Lunar New Year fireworks, planned by Wilson Mao. (Photo: Flickr/Michael Elleray)

According to the Chinese calendar, the Year of the Monkey will begin on Monday, and today marks the beginning of extravagant New Year’s celebrations in Chinese and other East Asian communities throughout the world. The place to be, though, to see some of the most stunning visuals is Hong Kong, where Lunar New Year events spread over 15 days, officially beginning with the International New Year’s Night Parade on New Year’s Day and ending with the Spring Lantern Festival.

On the second day of festivities—February 9th this year—the sky over Victoria Harbor is illuminated with one of the most spectacular fireworks displays in the world.

Hong Kong’s Lunar New Year fireworks tradition began in 1982, originally sponsored by the Jardine Matheson trading company to commemorate its 150th anniversary. Since 1997, the display has been planned and managed by Wilson Mao Wai-shing, a man with, according to the South China Morning Post, the “coolest job in Hong Kong.”

Mao fell in love with fireworks as a child in 1960’s Hong Kong, and began putting on major public displays in 1996; now, he manages not only Hong Kong’s Lunar New Year fireworks, but their New Year and National Day celebrations as well. He packs an extraordinary amount of detail into the 23-minute presentation, which is set to music—viewers can listen along on a local radio station—and divided into eight to nine scenes around three minutes long. Mao sketches ideas to match the year’s theme and travels to fireworks factories in mainland China, where fireworks are more lightly regulated, to see if his ideas can be made reality. For example, he described the process involved in creating fireworks in the shape of a monkey’s head:

For this year we have the monkey face. I draw out what I want them to look like and they [the factories] tell me what works and what doesn’t. We went through many trials, the first three didn’t work, but the fourth and fifth ones were better. In the end I settled for the fourth one. It’ll have a red face, red ears, green mouth and strobing eyes

Fireworks on National Day 2010, also planned by Wilson Mao. (Photo: Flickr/Dora Hon)

This year, 23,888 fireworks shells will be launched during the display; along with the monkey heads, viewers will be treated to an auspicious red “8” in the first scene, multi-colored balls symbolizing Hong Kong’s diversity, and red hearts to emphasize caring for others. The display will conclude with a no-holds-barred explosion of fireworks and gun salute, if the artist’s renderings are any indication. In a nine-day process, the shells are loaded onto three barges, which are then floated into the middle of the harbor to help ensure fire safety.

But, of course, Mao is already looking towards next year’s event, and he’s hoping drones will provide the next big innovation in fireworks displays. As he explained to the South China Morning Post: “Drones are exciting if we can shoot fireworks from them….[I]t’s going to change the dimension of fireworks. Fireworks burst from a very high altitude and then drop down. But with drones they can go down and then up and then down again, which is amazing.” It’s hard to disagree with him.