Lunar New Year celebrations across Asia

by AFP, Jan 23, 2004 | Destinations: Vietnam / Indonesia / Singapore / China / Korea, S / Philippines / Taiwan

BEIJING, Jan 22, 2004 - Today Asia celebrates its most important holiday, the Lunar New Year, with traditional rituals, praying for good fortune and prosperity in the Year of the Monkey.


In China, where the festival originated millennia ago, hundreds of millions marked the new year with temple fairs, family reunions and lavish ceremonies. Re-enactments of traditional ceremonies were being played out at Beijing's Ditan Park, the site of the altar where sacrifices were once made to the God of Earth. Shanghai residents queued patiently outside the Jingan temple for a chance to wish for luck, good health and prosperity. Inside hundreds gripped sweet-burning incense sticks as they bowed and mumbled words of hope to Buddha and struck the temple's main bell. "People go to bow and pray to (Buddha) in the hope that their wishes will come true in the new year," a young woman surnamed Xu said.


In Taiwan, the first minute of the New Year saw vast crowds thronging the major temples, as visitors engaged in a rush to be the first to offer incense sticks to the deities and be blessed with a year of extra good luck. At Tzu Nan Temple in central Taiwan's Nantou County, worshippers borrowed money from the gods -- actually from the temple -- but rather than spending it, they must keep it for the rest of the year as a token of non-stop cash flow. "We are borrowing some money back in the hope that our business will be prosperous through the year," said a visitor to the temple.

South Korea

Thirty million out of South Korea's 48 million people were on the move to visit family and pay homage to the ancestors. Many of them were first- or second-generation city dwellers going back to the towns and villages, where the family has often lived for centuries. As a result, the big cities were nearly empty, with public offices, shops and firms closed and only the cemeteries packed with visitors.


Tet, as the festival is known in Vietnam, led to noisy celebrations in Hanoi at midnight, as tens of thousands of people took to the streets on motorbikes. On Thursday, families tucked into lavish feasts Thursday hoping the omens for the coming year are good. Under the "xong nha" tradition, the first visitor to a home during Tet determines the household's fortune for the coming year. Generally, only close relatives are invited to call round at this time, although some families with high aspirations invite rich or famous people to ensure they too will come into wealth and influence in the new year.


For the first time in 30 years, Singapore's government allowed firecrackers to be set off to usher in the Lunar New Year, and thousands gathered in the city-state's Chinatown to witness the countdown before midnight. "Now amidst the sound of firecrackers, we usher in the Year of the Monkey," Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry on Thursday. "The outlook this year is much brighter, and the Singapore economy is on track for steady growth," he said. That, he said, would help Singapore's near record-high unemployment rate of 5.9 percent ease later this year.


Indonesia's Chinese minority did what they were not allowed to do under autocratic ex-president Suharto, and celebrated the Lunar New Year with lion dances and fireworks. The country's ethnic Chinese make up about three percent of the 214 million people in world's largest Muslims country. But the Lunar New Year public holiday, known locally as Imlek, is increasingly being acknowledged by non-ethnic Chinese.


In the Philippines, by contrast, it was business as usual Thursday for the small ethnic Chinese community, as companies, shops and government offices stayed open. Thursday was a "special day," President Gloria Arroyo declared, giving credit to China's role in forming the country's heritage, but not a holiday. Still, many of the country's biggest shopping malls were decked out in Lunar New Year motifs, and Manila newspapers came out with special supplements carrying horoscopes and recipes for Chinese dishes and treats.

Growing numbers, in China at least, complain that the stress of family reunions, endless dinners, alcohol and present giving is all too much. Psychologist Xu Lan said people often end up with frayed nerves, or "Spring Festival Syndrome", and advised them to slow down. "Pace yourself, get enough rest and listen to some light music on your own," she said.

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