Year of the Dragon roars into Asia

Millions across Asia celebrate the Chinese New Year, with superstitious anticipating a year filled with luck.

China New year strongman performer in Beijing

A billion-plus Asians have welcomed the Year of the Dragon with a cacophony of fireworks, hoping the mightiest sign in the Chinese zodiac will usher in the wealth and power it represents.

From Malaysia to South Korea, millions of people travelled huge distances to reunite with their families for the lunar new year on Monday – the most important holiday of the year for many in Asia – indulging in feasts or watching dragon dances.

As the clock struck midnight, Beijing’s skyline lit up with colour as families across the Chinese capital set off boxes and boxes of fireworks to ward off evil spirits in the new year — a scene repeated across the country.

Pollution levels in the city, which has come under fire for its bad air quality, spiked in the early hours of Monday morning as fireworks filled the skies with particulates, before falling back down again, official data showed.

Those living in the Philippines, meanwhile, were able to sleep in on Monday after the Lunar New Year became an official holiday for the first time, despite objections from some in the business community.

China’s celebrations come amid uncertainty over the possibility within months of a change of leadership at the top of the country’s ruling Communist Party, according to Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan.

China is also set for a new leader, as Melissa Chan explains

The dragon is the most favourable and revered sign in the 12-year Chinese zodiac – a symbol of royalty, fortune and power that is also used in other cultures that see in the Lunar New Year, such as in Vietnam.

Baby boom

As such, hospitals across China and in Chinese communities are bracing for a baby boom as couples try to have a child this year.

Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, even took advantage of the Dragon to call on the country’s residents to boost a stubbornly low birth rate, in an attempt to reduce the government’s heavy reliance on foreign workers.

“I fervently hope that this year will be a big Dragon Year for babies… This is critical to preserve a Singapore core in our society,” he said in his new year message.

Nannies in Beijing and neighbouring Tianjin are charging more in 2012, and beds in the capital’s maternity hospital are all booked up until August, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride reported that there was also an influx of expectant mothers into Hong Kong to gain a coveted Hong Kong passport for their children.

Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride on the Hong Kong baby boom

But some astrologers and geomancers have predicted that the Dragon could bring new natural disasters and further financial volatility.

Hong Kong feng shui master Anthony Cheng warned that a “scandalous corruption case” would rock China in the second half of 2012, and also said high-ranking officials would be forced to step down, thrown behind bars or even die.

But people across Asia disregarded the doomsday predictions over the holiday, preferring to feast and celebrate with their families, and pray at temples or pagodas.

Highways in Malaysia, where 25 per cent of the population is ethnic Chinese, were clogged at the weekend while the capital Kuala Lumpur became almost deserted as people travelled home.

In South Korea, which also celebrates the Lunar New Year, more than half of the entire population – or some 31 million people – took to roads, railways and planes for the holiday.

But stores in the capital Seoul, normally quiet at this time of year, bustled with activity as tens of thousands of tourists from China swamped major shopping areas to spend an expected $88 million in January.

“I feel like I’m walking on the street in China. There are so many of them,” Park Eun-Yong, a South Korean college student, told AFP.

Chinese tourists also flocked to Tokyo, where interpreters in Mitsukoshi – one of Japan’s most prestigious department stores – were on hand to help with purchases and announcements were made in Mandarin.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies