SF & Illegal Fireworks: Lawlessness, Crackdowns, ’90s Gang Shootout & Shocking Explosion

Prior to the 1990s, authorities routinely looked the other way as Bay Area families piled into their station wagons and headed to San Francisco’s Chinatown District to score illegal fireworks each July 4th holiday — everything from sparklers and poppers to bottle rockets and M-80s.

AP photo of a former gang member’s house that was blown up & knocked off its foundation when explosives being stored in the basement were ignited by a cigarette. [John Green, AP/San Mateo County Times]
Steven Zhang/Wikimedia Commons

While most fireworks are imported from China, M-80s and M-1000s are made right here in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area — in local basements, garages, and warehouses, which is a frightening thought considering that the materials used in the explosives are highly combustible.

According to this 1998 SFGate article, M-80s are only 1 inch long and a half-inch wide, but they’re as explosive as one-eighth of a stick of dynamite. The powder is lighter than air and especially dangerous if it lands near appliances such as gas furnaces, stoves, or water heaters.

Chinatown’s Grant Avenue and California Street, September 2008. [Michael Beaton via Wikimedia Commons.]

His wife reportedly said he lit a cigarette next to his basement stash of illegal explosives. The house was knocked off its foundation at a 45-degree angle, and the two neighboring houses were also destroyed. Windows were blown out for blocks and nearby car windshields shattered. Over 118 firefighters responded to the fire.

The suspect was blown through a wooden wall and suffered burn and splinter injuries, but luckily none of the neighbors or any bystanders were seriously injured in the blast.

Golden Dragon Restaurant, scene of the 1977 massacre. [Wayne Hsieh/Flickr]
Mural by Twick of ICP Crew, January 2012. [The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Via Picryl under public domain.]

Additionally, lack of government support and community/social resources, which could provide Chinatown vendors and behind-the-scenes players with safer options for earning a living, leaves these groups stuck in an industry that puts theirs and their neighbors’ lives in jeopardy.



Writer and designer uncovering lesser-known stories surrounding San Francisco culture & history — and beyond.

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Leanne Maxwell

Writer and designer uncovering lesser-known stories surrounding San Francisco culture & history — and beyond.