In 1996, not long after arriving in the US, he acquired the proper permits to enter the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. There he detonated small explosive devices that formed miniature mushroom clouds.
Many big events in China have been crowned with Cai’s fireworks, including APEC China 2001 in Shanghai, the 2008 Beijing Olympics and China’s 70th National Day Anniversary, as well as the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
His work displays a sense of childhood wonder, acute sensitivity and deep humanity. “Sky Ladder” – his most ambitious artwork – is the best example. A project 21 years in the making, that took him three attempts before succeeding in 2015.
On Huiyu Island, a picturesque fishing village off the coast of his native Quanzhou, Fujian Province, Cai unfurled a 500-meter long, 5.5-meter wide ladder lined with gold fireworks from a gigantic weather balloon floating above. He ignited the ladder of fireworks from the ground, which appeared to climb the ladder toward the sky. The artist dedicated the work to his beloved 100-year grandmother, his parents and his hometown.
“Behind ‘Sky Ladder’ lies a clear childhood dream of mine,” Cai said in a press release. “I have always been determined to realize it... It carries affection for my hometown, my relatives and my friends.”
Listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site this year, Quanzhou was among the world’s earliest global trade centers. In 1292, Marco Polo visited Quanzhou (then called Citong) before departing for his home in Venice, Italy, after two decades in Asia. He described Quanzhou as a “very great and noble city” more prosperous than Alexandria.
Historically, Quanzhou was an open and inclusive city. Cai recalled that even during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Quanzhou was far more open and tolerant than the rest of China.
“I was fortunate enough to be born in such a lovely city. It’s a city of diversity, openness, freedom, individualism and ease, a place with corners that the tumultuous storms of the social movements couldn’t reach,” Cai told NewsChina.
His father worked at a State-run bookstore, where he was in charge of storing foreign books for government use only. During the Cultural Revolution, when the country was cut off from the outside world, Cai’s father often secretly brought home foreign books ranging from Samuel Beckett’s plays to Mikhail Sholokhov’s AndQuiet Flows the Don and Nobel Prize winning works. He asked his son to finish reading each in one day. These precious experiences opened young Cai’s first window to the outside world.
It was also his father that taught him about art. “When I was a boy, I often sat in my father’s lap and rolled his cigarettes. My father drew miniature landscapes in pen on the matchbox while he smoked. Sometimes he drew a series of landscapes on multiple matchboxes,” Cai said.
Cai’s father often held salons at home, inviting friends to discuss books, draw and practice calligraphy. Nourished by a family rich in art ambience, Cai was determined to dedicate himself to art.