Joss Sticks and Cracker Night
Perceptions of Asia in the post war period were greatly affected by the war against Japan and refracted through the sense of Britishness that was still so pervasive. The little yellow man was inferior whether he was Japanese or Chinese. Not much else was known of Asia amongst ordinary folk. May 24, Empire Day, Queen Victoria’s birthday, was a particular celebration and affirmation of this cultural dimension. It was directed predominantly towards school children. Mornings involved a March to the local RSL Hall followed by addresses from local dignitaries, members of Parliament, the Anglican Minister, perhaps some other denominations, but not the Romans.
We sang Kipling’s Recessional, Advance Australia Fair and God Save the Queen. Speeches were infused with invocations of the civilizing importance of Empire. After such patriotic speeches we were all granted a half-day holiday and presented with a polished red Jonathon apple. Red was the colour of the British Empire. Even at this late hour, although Midnight’s Children had dimmed it’s power, there was a lingering imperial twilight, but once out of the hall we could get on with the real business of the day.
Through the May School Holidays we’d been building bonfires. Some bonfires were enormous. Now it was time for these piles of accumulated rubbish to have their finishing touches. We’d actually been building them for weeks, even before the May holidays, although this was always the most active time.
In May we still followed the habits of summer, going barefooted, a lot of the time. It was always a reassuring sign of the approaching season when late in the day, after working assiduously on our bonfires, unclad feet felt an autumn chill. It was a grounding delightful feeling. A sense of a hard days work and the promise, inherent in the elements, that soon it would be Empire Day and Cracker Night.
Recycling of things like cars tyres was rudimentary in the 50s, so they were easy to get and highly prized as fuel. Such flammable items produced excellent flames while generating masses of black acrid smoke. High flames and lots of smoke driven aloft by the heat of the fire were what we aspired to achieve.
The archetypal bonfire was a centre post with car tyres stacked like donuts. Around the centre post we set almost anything that would burn. As a finishing touch old fibro sheets were popular since while they didn’t burn they inevitably crackled and exploded in a really hot fire. I now wince at the environmental vandalism of it all.
Fireworks were the other essential ingredient. British Standard fireworks and the Australia equivalent, Globe, were very beautiful, Roman Candles, Golden rains, Catherine Wheels, Jumping Jacks, Mount Vesuvius and of course, Sky Rockets. These were reliable, well made and somewhat expensive compared with the Chinese alternatives. While small children were content to watch the beautiful displays of the largely British and Australian fireworks, as we grew older the Chinese fireworks became most highly prized, bungers to be precise. Bungers were collected for weeks if not months beforehand.
Shoeboxes were ideal for storing fireworks. As often as possible I’d buy bungers, penny bungers and tuppeny bungers, sometimes even bigger ones hit the market. I also bought Double Happys and Tom Thumbs. These were unimpressive as a single retort but if left in their carefully woven strings they guaranteed a machine gun like blaze of sound.
Headlands and open spaces around Coogee were ideal locations for bonfires and as the time approached impressive cone shaped rubbish piles would appear along the coast. Our bonfires were always set on the Chook Yard, actually an old tennis court that had fallen into disuse during the war years. This was the time when threats of Japanese coastal attack caused the drift of wealthier people out of the Eastern Suburbs freeing up spaces like the Chook Yard. An informal common, accessible from surrounding backyards, it was a haven for local children.
By modern standards Cracker Night was quite a dangerous event. Although we were cautioned against holding all but the most benign Sparklers, the challenge was always to find ways of pushing the margin. Risky behaviours were synonymous with the event and the weeks leading up to it. At first we experimented holding Tom Thumbs as the exploded, then progressed to Double Happy’s and finally developed the art of holding Penny Bungers, ever so gingerly, just with the tips of our fingers. The most dangerous event was the accidental ignition of someone’s entire cache of fireworks. Fortunately this seldom happened, but when it did pandemonium erupted. People scattered in all directions in a spectacular confusion of explosions and whizzing balls of sodium, magnesium and phosphorus, then the disappointment, the regret, the blame.
Cracker Night always had a special visitor. In my mind he was a most celebrated visitor, a friendly man who always came well prepared. His name was Ray Long. He was a Chinese Australian Engineer. His great contribution to Cracker Night was the introduction of the Joss Stick. This gave our celebrations a refined bouquet of burning sandalwood contrasted with the unrestrained combustion of rubbish. Such intense heat lifted the smoke high drawing the smell of joss in towards the bonfire.
Pyrotechnically speaking, the hardest thing to do was to safely and reliably light fireworks, avoiding accidental ignitions. Matches were difficult to manage and cigarette lighters had to be filled with expensive lighter fuel. A joss stick, was a sort of mini-fire stick, this was always much easier. On reflection Ray’s contribution was much subtler. What Ray brought to Bonfire Night was his great generosity. He succeeded in transforming the event, not by attempting to control the outcome but in the act of giving he created something entirely new.
Ray only brought Tom Thumbs, Double Happys and Bungers. He shrieked with delight at the deafening explosions. He was transformed, an adult incarnation of the joyful plump children that adorned the packets of Chinese fireworks. Like a laughing Buddha he was the ‘god’ of cracker night, radiating a joyful simplicity, bringing another reality, a face of China, a glimpse of the Tao.
Recent comments from neighbourhood friends who remember these events firsthand has inspired me to prepare another draft of this story. It will be posted soon