Playing with fire: Mandarin Oriental Beijing destroyed

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.

From PanYi

From PanYi

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.

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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.

The Discussion: 19 Comments

Stunning images to say the least…

About your question Richard, I agree with you that it would be hard to regulate a very old tradition. But at the same time, times have changed, and most notably, the cities have changed. With the current modern crowded mega-cities, I guess the risk is much higher than let’s say a 100 years ago when the houses were scattered and not so high rise.

One could argue that in the past the structures themselves were more prone to catch fire because they were made of wood, but on the other hand, today’s building are much taller, hence increasing the chance that the explosives detonate at roof or window level.

If I was superstitious I’d say: Wind, Earth, Water, Fire…

February 10, 2009 @ 1:25 am | Comment

For those of you wondering what I’m referring to…

木 火 土 金 水

February 10, 2009 @ 1:32 am | Comment

And even at this instant, after 2AM, the roar of fireworks continues, less than what it was two hours ago, but a steady din nonetheless….

February 10, 2009 @ 2:14 am | Comment

has the tower fallen after the huge fire like the twin towers and building WTC number 7 ? People, think where the truth is !

February 10, 2009 @ 2:33 am | Comment

Wow, that is getting a bit conspiratorial, don’t you think?

February 10, 2009 @ 2:48 am | Comment

I don’t want to start a 911 debate, but let’s just say that between a firework explosion and an 1 airplanes crashing into a building, I think it’s far fetch to draw similar conclusions, given the context.

“People, think where the truth is !”

Dunno where she is, haven’t seen her in a while, been told she’s on a forced vacation leave because of the Crisis… Aside from that, find your own, and try to discuss about it with others, share your ideas… For this kind of material, better to rely on your own conclusions, not those of others. And generally speaking, better to keep it for yourself, you’ll just end up having people virtually gawking at you weirdly.

And stay objective. As we all know, there is no ultimate and scared “truth”.

Satirical Theory: Maybe they’ve put some explosives / fire accelerant in the rooftop… Knowing that the firework show from tonight would light them up, so now they can cash-in back their overspending in insurances. Hard times for the real estate, who knows?

February 10, 2009 @ 2:56 am | Comment

I was just chatting about ghostbusters 2 last night, reminds me of the ending part with the ooze, actually the first one had something like this as well with staypuffed… I am sorry for the victims. That should go without saying, but sometimes you gotta say it.

February 10, 2009 @ 2:57 am | Comment

Here’s a excerpt of a report by the AP on this incident:

“The CCTV complex was a hugely expensive trophy of Beijing’s pre-Olympics building boom, the result of many billions of dollars the ruling Communist Party devoted to making Beijing a city of the future. ”

It’s really amazing how a simple fire incident can be subtly interpreted like this. “This is just that evil Communist party’s trophy, now it’s destroyed, hehe.”

Notice the word “Trophy” and “ruling Communist Party”.

This is what I am talking about. The writing of every simple news piece (even the most innocent and non-political event) contains languages/rhetoric that subtly puts a “spin” on things. phrase like “ruling Communist Party”, “Chinese regime” etc are used in place of “Chinese government”. And every piece of news is (subtly) interpreted as a reflection of some (bad) policy of the “ruling Chinese Communist Party”. From bad weather, to traffic accidents, to fire, to drought, literally everything.

February 10, 2009 @ 3:03 am | Comment

Perhaps it would be useful to find out how many accidents/injuries are caused by fireworks each year. Even if this fire was caused by something else I’m sure it would still be a good idea to try to make firework usage safer. It might be difficult, but the price of not waving a big stick might be too high.

February 10, 2009 @ 3:08 am | Comment

Good example Hong Xing.

But I’m sorry to say, but around the world, and in the public opinion, not a lot of people like the CCP. It’s just the reality, you’ll have to get used to it. But millions of people love the Chinese people.

We grew up during the Cold war / Post Cold war. Communism = Evil is the popular public opinion, and most people you would ask about why, could probably not give you a very strong and elaborated answer. It’s hardwired in our western culture, somehow.

Just take a look at what the news looked like during the cold war. Right now, it’s exactly the same thing, only it’s coming from the media. It’s not a secret and nobody will argue against you about this fact.

Try to find a relatively recent article from a major and reliable news outlet attacking directly the Chinese peoples (The source can’t be from a personal blog).

Few peoples truly hate China or the Chinese people (apart a very small minority of fascists and racists, as we find in every countries, China included toward the white people).

The Western news are constantly attacking one single thing: The Government and its symbolic and its ideological concept.

They are not attacking: The Chinese people

Almost every single article I have seen about the “normal” people in China are always stories about how hard working they are, their misery and their strength while going trough unthinkable challenges, their unique hard worship, their fights and the constant struggle against their 1984′s style government,etc, etc and a very long etc…

February 10, 2009 @ 3:23 am | Comment

I forgot to add: If the image that the CPP projects in China and around the world was something else than an iron fist, this could also help so that people would not blame them for everything.

The blame distribution would be easier, as it is in Western countries. e.g The municipal management should regulate this, or they mismanaged that.

But here in China, ultimately, it all ends up in the government hands. If you put dog poo at the bottom of the pool, it will eventually surfaces, right?

From bottom to the top. And who’s dealing with it when it reaches the surface, who’s accountable to give answers to the populace? And who’s giving answers to the world, through their tightly controlled medias?

You know the answer.

Do you still wonder why the journalist are constantly hitting the same nail?

February 10, 2009 @ 3:34 am | Comment

We grew up during the Cold war / Post Cold war. Communism = Evil is the popular public opinion, and most people you would ask about why, could probably not give you a very strong and elaborated answer. It’s hardwired in our western culture, somehow.

So you agree that this is just the West’s version of “public brainwashing”, the result of it being even to this day “Communism=evil” (and its corollary: Chinese gov’t=evil) is “hardwired” into Western people’s minds. Same way that “America=evil” is hardwired into the minds of today’s Iranian or Nationalist Chinese (allegedly, me) ? Then we are both victims of brainwashing then, good, finally you admitted it.

And further, you admit then that these “editorialized” phrases and constant subtle insinuations (even in the most non-political hard-news reports) in the writings of Western mainstream media represent a bias, that the journalists writing these pieces are consciously or subconsciously trying to fit every story coming out of China into a pre-defined “narrative” about China – the narrative being of course that China is a potentially a latent threat to the world (current value system and power structure as defined by the West) due to its “dictatorial nature” and must be viewed with an eye of suspicion. This narrative permeates throughout China-reporting in the mainstream press in the West, but is done very subtly and not crassly like CCTV does. You admit this then?

And if you acknowledge this, and if your answer is: “China deserves it, because it is Communist, it is not democratic, it deserves to be viewed with suspicions and it deserves to be called ‘Chinese regime’ or ‘ruling Chinese Communist Party’ or ‘Red China’ when we refer to it, and all events in China deserve to be ‘spinned’ and ‘interpreted’ in a negative light.” If that is your answer, then fair enough, because no media is objective.

If this is the case, how does this jive with a typical Westerner’s lecture on “China, your media should be more like us, more fair and objective”. If you admonish Chinese media to be less anti-US, more fair, and then turn around and admit that Chinese is a “evil regime” and admit that your reports constantly push this narrative, where is your sincerity in your admonishment, and why should the other side take your admonishment?

I hope you can understand where I am coming from.

February 10, 2009 @ 3:50 am | Comment

Not to take the post off topic, just wanted to let people know this news since it is interesting, no need to make any comments off the thread topic…

China tells United Nations it protects human rights
http://in.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idINIndia-37925720090209

China denies censorship, persecuting activists
http://tinyurl.com/aoe2x2

February 10, 2009 @ 3:58 am | Comment

Speaking of tropes in news reporting…Shanghai Daily, using copy from Xinhua’s English service, is blaming fireworks but ends the story with this gem:

“Beijing usually tightly restricts the use of fireworks in the downtown area.”

Um, really….?

February 10, 2009 @ 5:58 am | Comment

[...] reported in many blogs, newspapers that it was the CCTV building on fire, that is incorrect. Also, Richard asks if random fireworks should be allowed on Chinese new [...]

February 10, 2009 @ 8:09 am | Pingback

First my condolences for the victim.

Second the images are truly spectacular. Expect to see similar images in coming movies. Maybe in new Blade Runner sequel

That was a fiery fire :-O

February 11, 2009 @ 2:09 pm | Comment

[...] I walked by the hotel that I said nearly a month ago had been “destroyed” by illegal CCTV fireworks. Since then I heard some debate about whether the building was actually [...]

March 2, 2009 @ 7:12 pm | Pingback

I’ve been doing a little looking and found zero info so far. What was the construction type? Doesn’t look non-combustible to me. If the building was almost completed, where were the sprinklers?

I believe China, unlike most of the developed world, uses performance based codes. Most of the world uses prescriptive based codes for fire-resistance. Performance based codes are coming for all of us but in China I’d question how well something can be implemented given the obvious problems with corruption.

Comments have been posted about older, wood construction versus modern methods but engineers knew enough to protect steel from fire in the 1800′s. Similar techniques were still being used when the Empire State Building was built in the early 20th century (the Empire State Building was designed and mostly built before the first Uniform building Code was adopted). Empire State survived being smacked by a twin engine bomber. Although the move to performance based codes is intended to result in a more rational design for buildings, the impetus is economic driven. Since we already put up buildings that are less durable than those designed on principals from 1880 do we trust the experts to design, approve and build buildings to less conservative requirements than those in current codes? Is the Mandarin Oriental fire an image from our future? Lucky the building wasn’t already in service.

February 9, 2010 @ 2:55 am | Comment

It was the skin of the building that got toasted, not the interior. Would sprinklers have made a difference?

Meanwhile, last I heard they were going to strip away the damaged exterior and go ahead with the hotel. People who believe in feng shui will probably want to stay at the nearby Millennium instead.

February 9, 2010 @ 3:49 am | Comment

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