Culture clash as Honolulu's partial fireworks ban passes

Jeffrey Lam
Jeffrey Lam
Council member Rod Tam
Council member Rod Tam

By Teri Okita – bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The new partial fireworks ban in Honolulu has set off a powder keg of complaints from folks in the Chinese community. Councilman Rod Tam has even gone so far as to say it is unconstitutional.

Certainly, there are plenty of supporters of this ban, especially in law enforcement, the fire department, and people with health concerns. But in the past couple of weeks, Honolulu Hale has been flooded with calls and emails from residents who say fireworks restrictions hurt their cultural identity.

The Chinese lion dance association of Hawaii performs more than 100 times a year, mostly during the new year holiday season. Members say restricting firecrackers is more than just bad for business.

"The culture dies, " says Jeffrey Lam, head coach of the association. Lam has been lion dancing all his life and says fireworks are engrained in the Chinese culture and religion, especially during the new year. "People in the past have based the whole year on the first day of the year," explains Lam.

Honolulu's partial ban will limit the hours that people can light firecrackers for the new year, even when they have a permit. Some say that violates their rights to freedom of religion and cultural expression. They'd at least like the hours extended.

Councilmember Rod Tam says burning firecrackers is part of a day long tradition. "During the morning of Chinese New Year's Eve, people clean their house to set off for the new year. Before they do that, they burn firecrackers. Firecrackers chase away the bad spirits and the old spirits."

It's not only out with the old, but in with the new, they say. Firecrackers usher in prosperity and happiness, and Councilmember Tam says people are willing to risk arrest and prosecution to celebrate their culture. "The Chinese religious beliefs and cultural beliefs are so embraced in people that they're going to do it anyway."

Jeffrey Lam thinks so, too. Despite the city and county's new law, he believes federal laws will protect them when they light up. "We have civil rights. We can exercise our religious freedom."

The Honolulu fire and police departments are pleased that the law passed but are concerned about this upcoming holiday. They worry that residents will go 'all out' before the ban and use stockpiles of fireworks. They'll be reminding the public about the dangers involved - as the holiday season draws nearer. The ban takes effect January 2nd, 2011.

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