Victims of cracker culture

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 December, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 December, 1999, 12:00am

Every 10-year-old in the Philippines knows their names by heart - Five Star, Helicopter, Watusi and Judas' Belt. Wrapped in sparkling multi-coloured foil and shaped like rockets, candy cane and ice-cream cones, they are more popular at this time of year than Pokemon, Star Wars and the latest Playstation offering.

Unlike those toys, they can cause severe burns, blow off fingers or even kill - and most casualties are children.

The mystery is that while one person has been killed and more than 100 injured since December 21 this year, and many others in past years, the Philippine authorities still refuse to ban or regulate the sale of firecrackers.

This is despite governments elsewhere in Asia, including China, recognising that they are dangerous, having them banned and closing down the factories. Even Cambodia, perhaps the most lawless Asian country, has stopped their sale.

Filipino officials say that culture is to blame and that they cannot possibly stop the traditional greeting of the new year by letting off firecrackers to frighten away bad luck spirits.

Children, however, do not see firecrackers as good or bad luck - only as toys that make appealing loud noises and showers of colour.

On the streets of suburban Manila yesterday, children as young as five could be seen buying firecrackers from street vendors. Most popular was the Watusi, a red, five-centimetre-long cracker that makes a crackling noise as it sparkles and dances after being trodden on.

Scores of children have died - three so far this year - after mistaking them for candy.

At one stall in Don Antonio Heights in Quezon City, among the baby rockets, whistle bombs and assorted explosive baubles, was a Judas' Belt - a string of about 100 triangular crackers which the seller said with a grin made a 'very, very big boom'.

Needless to say, this was the most sought-after by children gathered around with peso notes and coins given as Christmas gifts.

Watusis, the cheapest, were selling for 10 pesos (about HK$1.90) for a box of 20. The rockets went for between 30 and 60 pesos, the Judas' Belt for 100 pesos.

Children of between 10 and 19 are most frequently seen in hospital casualty wards. But tragically, the next most-affected group is those aged below 10. With yearly injury tolls for the past decade averaging 1,000, it is not uncommon in Manila to see children with burn scars or even missing fingers or thumbs.

But the government argues that no matter how tough the legislation, Filipinos will stick to tradition and find a way to blaze away with crackers even if bans are put in place, so why bother? And besides, they argue, the Philippines is a democracy.

Those with particularly strong views about firecrackers are the estimated 500 vendors with shops at Bocaue in Bulacan province, north of Manila. Other centres are in Cavite province, south of Manila, and Cebu in the central Philippines.

At Bocaue, a stretch of road is lined on both sides for several kilometres by wood-awninged shopfronts. Each is two or three metres wide, about the same deep, and the walls are lined with shelves jam-packed with hundreds of packets of crackers of all shapes and sizes.

Stall-holder Benny Castello has been setting up business there for the past three years. He is 51 and got involved because he says a large profit can be made in a short time.

Between January and September he makes cardboard boxes and Scotch tape for export. But in mid-September he puts that aside and starts stocking his stall with the more than 2,000 varieties of fireworks made in the nearby pyrotechnics factory.

But although business is brisk, Mr Castello says that it is not as good this year as last.

'Last year there were only about 200 vendors here,' he said. 'But factories have doubled production because they know fireworks will be popular for millennium celebrations and a lot more people have moved into the business this year.' Like all the other stallholders lining the narrow road, he shouts to passers-by, mostly people from Manila stocking up their shops in anticipation of boom sales or preparing for New Year's Eve parties. On the streets of the capital, fireworks bought in Bulacan can sell for five or six times more.

Standing in front of a huge 'no smoking' sign, Mr Castello acknowledges that fireworks are something that have to be handled with care. He has heard of stalls exploding and causing deaths. He says that if a child came into his shop he would refuse to sell him or her fireworks.

'The legal age limit is 18,' he said.

But that was not evident at other stalls in the area. Wide-eyed children wandered around as if they were in Santa's toyshop. Their eyes were attracted by the shiny blue, green and red wrap and the names on the boxes like 'Double Smoking Dragon'.

Manufacturers confirmed that sales were brisker this year. Salvador Tan of the company Starmaker said: 'I'm sold out. The market doubles every year.' Mr Tan said the growth could have been three-fold - if manufacturers had not held back on production.

At the burns section of the East Avenue Medical Center in Quezon City, worried parents cradle screaming children, unwitting victims of the fireworks boom. They appeal for government action of some sort. But lawmakers were not around to hear.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's Foreign Editor