Chinese Fireworks

28  New Year’s Eve

Before the war, every self-respecting Dutchman in the Indies would light fireworks on New Year’s Eve. This was tradition. Just like the enormous pot of East Indian potato salad (diced boiled potatoes and beetroot, peas & carrots, pineapple, finely chopped cocktail onions, two hundred grams of fried and diced rump steak, sugar and vinegar, all mixed together and garnished with slices of hardboiled egg). In addition, there would of course be a glassware oven dish with delicious East Indian pasta (macaroni) with frankfurter, grated cheese and butter, topped with homemade mustard sauce to taste. It goes without saying that there would also be gado gado, satay ayam and satay babi, with a large pan of spicy katjang sauce. All of these traditional delicacies resulted from the collective, traditional cooking by all of our women, including my mother.

Jakarta 1955. Loes, my mother with Glenn, sister-in-law with child and me.
Loes, my mother with Glenn, sister-in-law with child and me. Jakarta 1955
Unfortunately, the fireworks available and sold in the Netherlands initially only consisted of rather weak firecrackers, filled with black gunpowder. Upon detonation, these fireworks of Dutch making produced little more than a dull bang. However, this soon changed and fireworks of Dutch making disappeared from the market. Fireworks were imported large-scale from China. Unfortunately for us boys from the Indies, these ‘legal’ Chinese fireworks contained only a limited, predetermined amount of explosives, in accordance with the Dutch standards. Through my network, I managed to obtain a large quantity of these fireworks at wholesale prices. I sold part of them on to friends and acquaintances at rates below the retail price. ‘Real’ Chinese fireworks have white powder, contain a large amount of explosives and produce a much louder bang and a nice bright flash of light as well.
Onbiard Johan van Oldenbarnevelt7
The three of us, my sister-in-law with her son Roy on board Johan van Oldenbarnevelt.

We would buy strings of twined firecrackers, several meters in length, called ‘brondongans’, which had a parcel of heavy duty firecrackers tied together at the end for producing an impressive final explosion. They were often imported illegally via Rotterdam and Belgium and would most certainly have been confiscated by the authorities if they’d been discovered. The police would often turn a blind eye when I’d light this brondongan on New Year’s Eve, probably because the officers themselves quite enjoyed the fun, but it remained an illegal piece of firework all the same. However, the police knew very well that we East Indian colonials had enough experience and knowledge to light these types of fireworks safely and sensibly. After all, fireworks were lit only once a year and they also knew that we’d clean up the rubbish we made, generally the very same night or otherwise no later than the next morning. With Tjap Go Meh, the Chinese New Year in China Town, which is generally accompanied by deafening bangs, the police would also turn a blind eye to the fireworks. This was also a once a year only event, without any riots whatsoever.

Amsterdam, 1957
Amsterdam, 1957. Loes is feeding our son Glenn while cousin Roy watches.
Towards the end of the year, I would invariably drive to Leeuwarden and load the trunk of my car with fireworks. From a safety perspective this wasn’t very responsible considering the amount of 'explosives’ in the boot, but hey, when you’re from the Indies you just do certain things anyway. We’d sell on a large part of the stock thusly obtained. This way, our neighbours and friends could get cheap fireworks and we could fully cover the costs of our own fireworks. Seeing that we were now in a position to obtain a significant amount of fireworks, we could compete with other East Indian families in our neighbourhood. The competition was primarily about producing the most impressive “midnighter”.

Halfway to midnight we would usually send out our children to visit our East Indian neighbours. With the excuse they were ‘coming to wish them an early happy New Year’, their real task was to find out the length in meters of their ‘midnighter’. Once we had an idea, we could extend or enhance our own ‘midnighter’ if required. It wasn't a matter of life and death of course, it was just a bit of fun and great competition. The ‘loser’ would always congratulate the ‘winner’ politely and would give it another shot the following year. After the competition, the neighbours would always come by each other’s houses to catch up and have something to eat. That’s what things were like in Amsterdam.

Next (29) »  Top Page   ^^  « Previous (27)