Behind the scenes with Hong Kong’s fireworks master: Year of the Monkey to start with 4.5 tonnes worth of bangs

Meet the man who makes every major celebration go off with a bang

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 February, 2016, 5:59pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 February, 2016, 5:08pm

Wilson Mao Wai-shing arguably has the coolest job in Hong Kong – setting off 4.5 tonnes of fireworks worth several million dollars in Victoria Harbour.

The 54-year-old has produced the fireworks displays for New Year, Lunar New Year and National Day since 1997 and admits it’s a tough challenge to outdo himself each time.

The CEO of Pyro Magic Multimedia Productions wouldn’t give too much away about Tuesday’s display when we went out on Victoria Harbour to see him setting up, but hinted it would feature happy simian faces to celebrate the Year of the Monkey.

Mao is the third generation in the family business of fireworks, his grandfather having started in 1953 in Sheung Wan.

“I have played with fireworks ever since I was a kid. I was born in the 1960s and my form of entertainment was my father shooting fireworks in front of me. He used to sell them to customers and show them the effects,” Mao recalls. “I had the luxury of playing with fireworks for free.”

After the 1967 riots, which led to laws prohibiting the setting off of fireworks without government permission, Mao went to China to continue his obsession.

Mao was hooked, although he says his father also wanted him to continue the business. “He also did trading – buying and selling goods, but I didn’t want to do that – it’s all about numbers. I like fireworks because they can be transformed into a piece of art with colour, symmetry, layering, and synchronised with music,” Mao says.

Coming up with a 23-minute sequence requires a lot of research and development that he says is challenging, and begins as soon as the previous fireworks show has finished.

“We have a lot of experience. We look at previous videos of ones we’ve done in Victoria Harbour and look at other countries’ fireworks displays and competitions and incorporate their ideas into our shows.”

He and his team start by picking the music. With a 23-minute show Mao says there are eight to nine scenes, each about three minutes long. “The music defines the story and special effects,” he says.

They choose music for each scene and put them together. Then they decide which fireworks go well with the different scenes.

“I see new effects in China that are completely out of my box. I go find the factory that makes them and buy them. The best fireworks factories are in Luyang, Hunan province.”

There are also customised effects that Mao checks if fireworks factories can make.

“For this year we have the monkey face. I draw out what I want them to look like and they [the factories] tell me what works and what doesn’t. We went through many trials, the first three didn’t work, but the fourth and fifth ones were better. In the end I settled for the fourth one. It’ll have a red face, red ears, green mouth and strobing eyes,” he says with a smile.

Come Tuesday evening he’ll be manning the control panel at the Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui, where he can be near some of those watching the show to hear their reactions. “I can see the fireworks in front of me and hear the roar of the crowd behind me. It’s funny – sometimes an effect that I think will wow the audience doesn’t wow them, but something I think is not a big surprise is a big surprise to them.”

WATCH: meet the ‘pyro’ behind the Chinese New Year fireworks since 1997

He says there can be mishaps – mismatches or wrong colours, but also pleasant surprises.

Safety is a part of the production he takes very seriously, following the rules to the letter. “Fires are a part of fireworks displays and sometimes a fire can persist after a fireworks display,” he says. There are fire extinguishers and water pumps on the three barges, each of which holds 1.5 tonnes of fireworks. “If we cannot fight the fires then we have to inform the Fire Services Department.

The middle barge will be anchored 300 metres from Wan Chai, and the other two 175 metres to the left and right. Each barge has containers filled with cylinders that contain firework shells of varying sizes set at different angles. They will be shot up to 300 metres in the air.

Each shell is coded so that it fires at the right time and goes in the direction intended.

Preparing the barges takes nine days, with teams of people putting the shells into cylinders that sit in a bed of sand.

Mao started doing big fireworks shows in 1996, first for the New Year celebrations at Tuen Mun Gold Coast, followed by the Tsing Ma Bridge opening, then the handover. “The fireworks contracts are selected by the sponsors and in 1996 the sponsors were kind enough to give me a chance,” he says. “I was very fortunate to be able to enter into this very important period in Hong Kong and to establish myself.”

For him the most memorable fireworks display was the one for the handover on June 30, 1997. “I witnessed the British leave Hong Kong with the best memory for people in Hong Kong. I did a few displays before they left,” he says. “When the Chinese came on July 1, 1997, they put on a beautiful display and I felt honoured to be part of that transition. It was interesting but exciting.”

Mao is constantly on the lookout for new ways to wow audiences, and says drones could be the next big thing.

“Drones are exciting if we can shoot fireworks from them. I have tried it in China because it is not regulated there. But in Hong Kong it is not allowed even though the harbour is closed. It would be nice if there was a law that allowed us to shoot from drones, because it’s going to change the dimension of fireworks. Fireworks burst from a very high altitude and then drop down. But with drones they can go down and then up and then down again, which is amazing.”