In a city that’s an international hub for tourism, it’s a little odd to remember that firecrackers were once the backbone of Macao’s economy. But up until the casino boom of the 1970s, firecracker factories employed a massive swathe of the city’s population – including young children – to make explosive pyrotechnics for export.
The Cultural Affairs Bureau (IC) has been working to shine a light on this lost industry through the restoration of the old Iec Long firecracker factory. Iec Long, which operated from 1926 until its closure in 1984, is part of Taipa Village. It officially reopened to the public as an industrial heritage site in late December 2022.
A trip to Iec Long is a journey into Taipa’s manufacturing past. Visitors follow a 400-metre-long walkway through the old fuse-glueing and firecracker-crimping workshops, past a pond, alongside waterways, and into an exhibition hall. Here, people can learn about how firecrackers were made at the factory, and the industry’s development in Macao. Artefacts including old tools, the factory’s original wood and stone signboard, and Iec Long’s firecracker packaging are on display, as well as historical photographs and interactive video demonstrations. An audio tour is available, too. Iec Long’s on-site souvenir shop stocks eco-friendly bags and other memorabilia, as well as books about the firecracker industry.
Local author Albert Lai had been looking forward to Iec Long’s restoration for more than a decade. The 73-year-old, who grew up making firecrackers and has written several books about the industry, took on the role of an academic advisor to the new Iec Long exhibition – which includes photographs from his personal collection. When Lai was a child in Taipa, making firecrackers was the main source of income of almost every family he knew. Both adults and children worked for the factories, either on-site or from home. While Lai recalls this period of his life as tough, his memories are tinged with nostalgia. He considers the firecracker era to be a collective memory of Taipa that should not be forgotten.
“To be able to see Iec Long well preserved to this day, reopened for the public to tour, there are no words to express my gratitude,” Lai says with emotion. “I want to thank the Macao government and IC for working towards this over the past 10 years.”
Lio Man Cheong, a 71-year-old painter, also worked for a firecracker factory as a child and is pleased to see the restoration complete. Lio sees Iec Long as an important educational tool; a way to teach younger generations about the historically significant firecracker industry and its role in shaping modern Macao. His painting, “Macao Firecracker Factory Map”, is currently on display at the exhibition.
Remembering the firecracker families
While China’s history with firecrackers dates back some 2,000 years, Macao didn’t enter the fray until the late 19th century.
By the 1920s and up until the 1970s, firecrackers were one of Macao’s top three exports (not incongruously alongside incense and matchsticks).
There were six firecracker factories in Taipa in those days, namely Kwong Hing Tai (the largest), Iec Long (the longest running), Him Un, Kwong Yuen, Him Son, and Po Sing. While the Macao Peninsula also had firecracker factories, the disastrous Toi Shan factory explosion – which killed more than 100 people and left 300 more injured – in 1925 led officials to limit the bulk of the industry to Taipa.
Lai recalls learning how to braid strings of firecrackers together by their individual fuses at age 6, working alongside his mother, brother and sister at home in Taipa (his father had moved to Hong Kong to find work). “We worked in front of our own small tables, so our firecrackers wouldn’t get mixed,” he says. “During the night time, we had to push the tables closer together, near the kerosene lamp, otherwise it would be too dark for us to see what we were doing.” This was in the 1950s.
Each morning, Lai’s mum would deliver their efforts to the Kwong Hing Tai factory by foot. She’d exchange two baskets of braided firecrackers for two baskets of unbraided firecrackers (with more than 8,000 individual firecrackers in each) to take home. The family regularly stayed up past midnight to complete their task, meaning Lai can barely remember doing any homework.
“We often got sleepy, our mother would scold us, we’d cry, but we still had to carry on braiding because we relied on it to eat, to sustain our living,” Lai says.
Making firecrackers was risky work. While the most dangerous parts – like inserting gunpowder – took place inside the factories, ‘safer’ jobs like braiding could still go badly wrong. The firecrackers Lai’s family worked with entered their home with their fuses attached; these could accidentally ignite and cause serious burns.
Lai admits there were times in his childhood that were dark. His mum was under immense pressure to provide for her family, and could be harsh. But Lai chooses to focus on the lessons and wisdom she imparted. “My mother used to tell us, ‘help people whenever and wherever you can’,” he remembers. “She also emphasised the phrase ‘力賤得人敬，口賤得人憎’ [‘Speak with your actions, not with your words’].”
Lio has similar memories. As a child, his job was to roll cardboard firecracker tubes at home. “Most children would quickly finish off their homework then take part in the labour to help support the family,” he says. “But the incomes [from firecracker making] were not high, often only enough to cover the electricity and water bills.”
Decline and fall
Macao’s fireworks industry started to falter in the 1960s. Lai thinks it came down to people’s perceptions of the products’ danger catching up with reality: both making them and using them was perilous. “In Macao, Hong Kong and across the world, a lot of the fire alarms and accidents were caused by firecrackers, so they were banned in many countries,” he says. “Sales began to drop.”
Lai recalls speaking with Kwong Hing Tai’s former factory manager about how firecrackers made in Macao were often faulty compared to those made in the mainland. “[The manager] told me the ratio of functional firecrackers was around 80 per cent good to 20 per cent bad here, compared to 90 per cent good for firecrackers manufactured in the mainland,” Lai says.
Other industries were also on the rise in the city, offering safer employment opportunities. Lai says making plastic flowers and bead embroidery started becoming more attractive alternatives to pyrotechnics.
Lio, meanwhile, views the decline of the firecracker industry as an inevitable consequence of society’s progression. “As our society evolves, some things are just bound to be eliminated, we can do nothing about that,” he says. “The firecracker factories just remain a part of our memory, a city memory.”
Preserving a collective memory
While the firecracker era was fraught with toil and danger, Lai and Lio both found themselves – later in life – working to preserve that chapter of Macao’s collective memory.
Four of Lai’s seven published books are about the industry. When he was researching his first book, “Reminiscence of Old Taipa” (《氹仔情懷》), which was published in 2010, he realised that nearly everyone he interviewed had worked for a firecracker factory at some point in their lives. “To write about Taipa’s history pretty much meant writing about Taipa’s firecracker industry, so there came my second book, ‘The Firecracker Industry in Taipa’ [《氹仔炮竹業》],” he says. That was published in 2013.
“Iec Long Firecracker Factory” (《益隆炮竹廠》) followed in 2015, after Lai uncovered some little-known information about the factory and its late owner, Tang Bick Tong. “In 2015, it was the 90th anniversary of Iec Long, so I released this book then,” Lai says.
For his next book, Lai wants to document the factory that dominated his childhood: Kwong Hing Tai, the largest in Taipa. “It is especially worth mentioning Kwong Hing Tai’s owner, Chan Lan Fong,” says Lai. “Everyone used to call him the ‘King of Firecrackers’ – he had a reputation worldwide, not only in Macao and Hong Kong. If in my remaining lifetime I am able to complete the book, ‘Kwong Hing Tai ‘King of Firecrackers’, Chan Lan Fong’, that would be great.”
Lai, who does all the research for his books himself, admits that time is against him. But he is determined: “People of our generation have an especially deep connection to Taipa, so no matter what, I will give it my all to accomplish what I want to do,” he says.
Lio held an exhibition titled “Macau’s Firecracker Industry – New Works by Lio Man Cheong” in 2018. His ink wash paintings depicted the various procedures involved in firecracker making. “This industry has now disappeared, but it used to be one of Macao’s largest industries – so I think it is worth recording,” the artist says.
Regarding Iec Long’s recent reopening, Lai says he is relieved the factory will serve as a monument to Taipa’s firecracker history. He believes it’s appropriate for the site to become a tourist attraction: a melding of Macao’s past with its present. “For tourists visiting Taipa, after exploring the Cotai Strip, Rua do Cunha and the Taipa Houses, I hope they also come to see Iec Long,” Lai expresses. “After all, it has had such an impact on Macao.”
Plan your visit: Iec Long firecracker factory is located on Rua de Fernão Mendes Pinto, in Taipa. While the walkway is open to the public from 6 am to 7 pm every day, the exhibition hall and souvenir shop are open from 10 am to 7 pm. Admission to Iec Long is free.