I was at the Bookworm tonight with friends, playing in the weekly quiz night (which, incidentally, we won), when the emcee told the audience that the new hotel next to the CCTV towers was in flames. We didn’t know if he was joking or not. Now I see he wasn’t joking.
The hotel is the Mandarin Oriental, and the cause was sparks caused by fireworks.
Anyone in Beijing tonight can tell you about the orgiastic explosions that rocked the city from 5pm to midnight setting off car alarms and leaving deep piles of debris on every street. Fireworks on the last night of CNY are always a very big deal here. Hastily set-up fireworks shops can be found everywhere, and they sell fireworks to people of all ages. Monitors with red armbands parade their neighborhoods to make sure people are using them safely. But something went very wrong tonight.
The Mandarin Oriental hotel caught fire sometime before 9 p.m. (1300 GMT) as the skies above the Chinese capital were filled with exploding fireworks — part of celebrations of the lantern festival that follows the Lunar New Year.
The entire hotel building was engulfed in flames, sending off huge plumes of black smoke and showering the ground below with embers. At least seven fire crews were on the scene and police held back crowds of onlookers and closed a nearby elevated highway to ensure safety.
Li Jian said he saw smoke arising from the 44-story hotel’s roof shortly after a huge burst of fireworks showered it with sparks, though it was not clear if they started the fire.
“Smoke came out for a little while but then it just started burning,” Li said….
Beijing usually tightly restricts the use of fireworks in the downtown area, but waives the rules each year during the Lunar New Year holiday. Monday, the final day of the exemption period, marked the first full moon since the Lunar New Year, and massive fireworks barrages exploded between buildings and in open spaces throughout the city.
Erik Amir a senior architect at building designers OMA said the fire had destroyed years of hard work.
“It really has been a rough six-seven years for architects who worked on this project,” said Amir, who rushed to the site after hearing of the fire.
“I think it’s really sad that this building is destroyed before it can be opened to the public,” he said.
This is right around the corner from my office; I passed by the hotel every day for nearly two years as it was being built.
So I had to ask myself: Should Beijing reconsider giving everyone the right to set off fireworks as they see fit during CNY? I’m just asking. I realize how difficult it would be to enforce a ban on fireworks when they are so much a part of the culture, and I don’t know if it would even be possible. I also don’t know whether tonight’s disaster was caused by amateurs lighting off fireworks for fun, or by a professional putting on a display for the public. I suppose we’ll find out the details soon enough.
But tonight is a reminder: fireworks can kill and destroy when they’re not used right. Should they be as freely distributed as tissue paper?
Update: Great live coverage from David Feng.
Eerily beautiful, frightening video footage here.
Update: China’s censors minimizing the story and blocking photos?
Update: CCTV admits fire was caused by their own illegal fireworks.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.