BEIJING—A billion-plus Asians welcomed the Year of the Dragon on Monday 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 traveled huge distances to reunite with their families for Lunar New Year – 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 color 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.
North Koreans marked the Lunar New Year by laying flowers before portraits of late leader Kim Jong-Il and recollecting his “undying feats,” the official news agency reported.
Those living in the Philippines 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.
The dragon is the most favorable and revered sign in the 12-year Chinese zodiac – a symbol of royalty, fortune and power that is also used in other cultures that mark the Lunar New Year.
Hospitals across China and in Chinese communities are bracing for a baby boom as couples try to have a child this year.
Nannies in Beijing and neighboring Tianjin have hiked up their prices for 2012 and the beds in the capital’s Maternity Hospital are all booked up until August, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong even took advantage of the Dragon to urge the country’s residents to boost a stubbornly low birth rate, in an attempt to reduce the government’s 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.
But in Hong Kong, where tens of thousands of pregnant mainlanders come to give birth every year to gain residency rights for their children, a Dragon baby boom could exacerbate problems of limited beds and soaring delivery costs.
According to some astrologers and geomancers, the Dragon may bring natural disasters and financial volatility to an already unstable world.
Hong Kong feng shui master Anthony Cheng warned a “scandalous corruption case” would rock China in the second half of 2012 and said high-ranking Chinese officials would be forced to resign, jailed or even die.
But across Asia most ignored the doomsday predictions, instead praying, feasting and celebrating with their families.
In Malaysia, where 25 percent of the population is ethnic Chinese, highways were clogged at the weekend while the capital Kuala Lumpur became almost deserted as people traveled home.
The new year began in tragedy for a family in central China’s Hunan province when a man set off explosives at a feast at his cousin’s house over a land dispute, killing himself and four others.
More than half of the population in South Korea, which also celebrates the Lunar New Year – some 31 million people – took to roads, railways and planes for the holiday.
But stores in 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 100 billion won ($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.