S.F. Pyrotechnica

The fuse of 200,000 firecrackers

Most American kids have an indelible memory of their first intimate brush with firecrackers: heart racing as we handle the colorfully patterned tubes for the first time; the anxious moment of lighting the fuse; the apprehensive pause before we are sure the flame has caught; the excitement of scurrying away just in time to hear the deafening report; the stink of gunpowder clinging to our clothes; and the immediate desire to do it again. Not many of us realized that each cracker we held between our grubby, sulfur-stained fingers was tied to traditions centuries old.

Local firecracker manufacturers Steven and Earl Cassorla of Cassorla Bros. Inc.still remember the first brick of firecrackers their mother bought them in Niagara Falls. It contained 40 packs of 30 Whizz Bangcrackers. While the crackers themselves were properly and eagerly destroyed long ago, the label that adorned that brick is pressed into one of the half-dozen photo albums the Cassorla brothers use to protect hundreds of such vintage labels.

Seated in their shared apartment/office, alongside an avalanche of paperwork and mail that threatens to spill off a wall-length desk, the brothers flip through their books, tracing childhood memories through vivid illustrations and the distant aroma of explosives. Steven -- the younger, darker, more chutzpadik of the two -- points out a favorite from Spaniel Flashlight Firecrackers: A silky-eared dog with blue eyes gazes faithfully from the yellow-and-white-striped background, oblivious to the crackers bursting around him.

The Spaniel was produced in 1958 by Kwong Hing Tai, a first-rate company that operated out of Portuguese-controlled Macao during the "Golden Age of Fireworks." (Most firecracker enthusiasts, or pyros, agree this period started in the mid-'20s and ended in 1972, when Richard Nixon lifted the U.S. trade embargo against China.) Like many folks in the industry, the Cassorlas have made a number of pilgrimages to Macao, examining remnants of their vocational tradition that began in China centuries ago.

According to Firecrackers: The Art & History -- a lovely, new, locally published book compiled and written by Warren Dotz, Jack Mingo, and George Moyer -- the Chinese discovered the first firecracker when a stick of bamboo was thrown onto an open fire, and the water trapped inside expanded and exploded. The frightening sound was thought to scare away evil spirits and firecrackers became a fundamental part of nearly every ceremonial occasion, especially Chinese New Year. With the advent of gunpowder (also discovered by the Chinese) and the realization that other metals added sparkle and color, firecracker-making became an industry and art form that hasn't changed much to the current day.

"Their [firecrackers'] history is really interesting from a sociological point of view, from the angle of religion, politics, pop culture, and art," Dotz says. "The labels themselves are works of art, offering a remarkable visual record of Chinese cultural attitudes, as well as their interpretation of American culture."

In Dotz's book, images (many taken from the Cassorlas' collection) of stunning mythological characters leap from the page. Dragons, unicorns, and phoenixes are followed by Chinese maidens (an Asian equivalent to the American pinup girl). Scenes from everyday Chinese life give way to legendary warriors, American cowboys, movie monsters, mermaids, space capsules, sports figures, military paraphernalia, black Americana, horses, and condors. Most of the labels are elaborate and gorgeous; some are ridiculous, like the Lady Fingers Brand, seemingly modeled after a dishwashing commercial. Many conjure distant recollections. Dotz remembers one summer, in the projects where he grew up in New York City.

"We had taken all the gunpowder from the firecrackers and put it in a single tube. One of the boys' parents got wind of the plan and wouldn't let us take the bomb outside, so he lowered it out of his fourth-story window on string. The explosion shook the whole housing complex. It was great."

Steven Cassorla began his apprenticeship with an Italian fireworks master at the age of 16 and toured the U.S. as a major-event shooter for a number of years before settling in San Francisco. With its large Chinese population, San Francisco was considered the firecracker capital of America -- once upon a time. During the '20s and '30s, the 13 largest importers would set aside their differences once a year and meet to discuss all things pyrotechnic. Now, ever-tightening restrictions force pyrotechnic conventions to be held elsewhere. None of the city's old fireworks businesses remains; few of the buildings that contained them even remain standing. And personal fireworks collections that would be considered legal just over the state border are seized and destroyed under anti-terrorism laws -- a situation Steven Cassorla has encountered while acting as a lawyer for fellow pyros.

"Nothing moves through San Francisco anymore but paperwork," Cassorla says. "But we manage to have a little fun."

On the eve of Chinese New Year, pyros gather outside a small San Francisco Chinatown bar. While local store proprietors light a traditional string of red crackers to chase away bad luck (for a ceremony aptly called "door opening with firecracker protection"), the pyros let loose with strings for happiness, fortune, longevity, and everything else including the kitchen sink.

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