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Burn to Ashes

I was among the tens of thousands of people packing FDR Drive in New York on the night of July 4 to watch the annual Macy’s fireworks display. The 30-minute show of red, blue, white, lemon, silver, and emerald green lights that formed smiley faces, bees, kaleidoscopes and waterfalls 1,200 feet above the East River were the most spectacular pyrotechnics I’ve ever seen. It was also the first time I watched fireworks within such a close range.

I was among the tens of thousands of people packing FDR Drive in New York on the night of July 4 to watch the annual Macy’s fireworks display. The 30-minute show of red, blue, white, lemon, silver, and emerald green lights that formed smiley faces, bees, kaleidoscopes and waterfalls 1,200 feet above the East River were the most spectacular pyrotechnics I’ve ever seen. It was also the first time I watched fireworks within such a close range.

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After the show, however, I found my hair, face, and shirt covered with black ashes from the burnt sparklers and recalled seeing paper scraps flying in the sky during the display.

This reminded me of an article I read about Phantom Fireworks, the nation’s largest independent importers and sellers of consumer fireworks. In late summer, Phantom’s executive vice president, Alan Zoldan, flies to cities across China to meet with fireworks manufacturers and hunt for the next big thing in bang.

China, however, has the world’s worst safety record for producing fireworks. According to news carried by one of China’s most popular Internet portals Sina.com (additional software is required to read Chinese characters), at least 143 people were killed in explosions at fireworks factories in China last year. In 2001, an explosion leveled a primary school in southern China, killing 41 people, mostly students. Investigations found fireworks factory bosses had contracted the work to the schoolteachers, who had students produce sparklers and received cash kickbacks in return.

Fireworks production doesn’t require much know-how or capital, and factories that are nothing more than sweatshops have mushroomed in remote, rural areas in China. Factory owners have largely ignored the government’s safety rules and built shops close to schools, gas stations and highways. Law enforcement yielded little result, as the plants are often the largest employer and revenue generator for locals.

As a result of globalization, we are linked to people in the remotest possible corners of the planet in ways previously inconceivable. Nike and the Gap have factories in Asia churning out sneakers and tops; gasoline burned in our cars may have come from Indonesia or the Middle East. Isn’t it time for us to take a closer look at the way we are, as importers, manufacturers, or consumers? After all, the thought of 40 primary schoolers vanishing in a blow sent a chilling wave down my spine.

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