Facts about Honolulu’s ban on fireworks and what it means for the Chinese New Year


“Firecrackers, as in the small, quarter-of-an-inch explosive wrapped in red paper, can still be used in cultural activities.” Socrates Bratakos, battalion chief of the Honolulu Fire Prevention Bureau

Community / There’s much confusion about whether or not fireworks are legal in the city of Honolulu. Will we see anymore epic displays like we did this past New Year’s Eve? Will we see kids twirling sparklers during the upcoming Fourth of July? And the timelier question might be, will Chinese families be permitted to practice their cultural traditions during the eve of this Chinese New Year?

A brief history

Long before the advent of modern-day fireworks, the industry existed solely in China. Legend has it that the invention of fireworks began in China more than 2,000 years ago when a Chinese cook mixed charcoal, sulphur and saltpeter and compressed it in a bamboo tube until it blew up in his kitchen. Eventually, fireworks were used to fend off evil spirits and ghosts, and later became a traditional, cultural practice in countries around the world.

Fireworks Today

Fast forward eight centuries to modern day Honolulu, where the use of something as simple as a sparkler is as complicated as the Christmas vs. Happy Holidays dispute. For some, the recent ban on fireworks violates a culture’s right to practice its traditions, and for others, it’s a step toward ensuring the safety of homes, animals, children and even sealife. For former Honolulu City Councilman Rod Tam, who voted against the fireworks ban, this is an unfortunate loss of core Chinese values and traditions within local communities.

“Unfortunately, Chinese cultural values have been lost and replaced with a Western lifestyle,” says Tam. “I think what has happened is that there’s been too much of a change of culture because too many people come from too many cities on the mainland, and now they’ve imposed those changes on us.”

Cleaning the Rumor Mill

People are found on both sides of the fence when it comes to the question of whether or not the ban is fair.

“I’ve heard all kinds of rumors that firecrackers aren’t allowed whatsoever,” says Socrates Bratakos, battalion chief of the Honolulu Fire Prevention Bureau. “The firecracker wrapped in red paper–that’s the real tradition used during the Chinese New Year. And the fireworks ban doesn’t take that away. It simply requires that you buy a permit.”

Bratakos says that aerial rockets and similarly sized explosives have always been illegal. Commercial operations are required to have a federal license to use such explosives, so shooting them off in one’s backyard is a federal offense.

“It’s illegal [now] to have, sell, import, or use sparklers, fountains, snakes, torches, cannons, toy smoke devices and anything else that goes to up to 12 feet high,” says Bratakos. “But firecrackers, as in the small, quarter-of-an-inch explosive wrapped in red paper, can still be used in cultural activities.”

This past 2011 New Year brought a huge spectacle of fireworks across the Waikiki skyline, and afterward, was reported as “the final spectacle.” But Bratakos says that’s entirely untrue.

“I’m not sure why there’s so much confusion about this issue. The Hilton Hawaiian Village still has their Friday night fireworks show and people will still see a spectacle on the Fourth of July and New Year’s. We encourage it, and we work closely with importers, wholesalers and retailers to help ensure that commercial, public displays are as safe as possible. We encourage this because it’s a better, safer way to enjoy fireworks. But because there are always rumors of a ‘total ban’ there will always be confusion.”

Year of the Hare, (Fight of the Snake)

Those in opposition to the ban argue that more education and a stronger enforcement of city and county permits would solve the problem. Others have expressed that fireworks cause too much property damage and waste taxpayers’ money.

In past years, Honolulu residents reported that family pets died from heart attacks as a result of the loud explosions. Recent reports of animals showing up on doorsteps with their paws burned off, and hides charred from residential fireworks was enough to cause some locals to agree on a total ban, regardless of the cultural ramifications.

Yet others feel that the tradition itself outweighs the nuisance of noise pollution and unfortunate acts by careless people. For Tam, whose zodiac sign is the snake, this issue cannot be ignored.

“The fireworks ban that was initiated last year is erroneous,” says Tam. “You can’t burn fireworks until 9pm? That’s wrong. The Chinese tradition, as a culture and religion, is to burn fireworks on New Year’s Eve, just before we clean house. We chase away the old spirits and welcome the new spirits. Those who didn’t understand that religious and cultural purpose voted in opposition.”

The centuries-old tradition will no doubt continue, with or without permits. Chinese families will still be seen cleaning the house and sweeping away ill fortune to make room for the incoming good luck.

Windows and doors will be decorated and families will feast on sweet delicacies. By the end of the night, before the morning exchange of red paper envelopes, the sounds of fireworks will be heard, sweeping away old ghosts, reconciling old grudges and making room for peace in the new year.

The Law

Ordinance 10-25, Bill 34 (2010) permits the use of firecrackers, during the following designated holidays, with the purchase of a permit ($25 buys up to 5,000 firecrackers).

American New Year’s Eve: 7am–9pm
Chinese New Year’s Eve: 7am–7pm
Fourth of July: 1–9pm