Asians Greet New Year With Food, Prayer

By ALEXA OLESEN
The Associated Press
Sunday, February 18, 2007; 3:27 PM

BEIJING -- Asians burned incense in temples thick with clouds of eye-stinging smoke and gathered for feasts of chicken, hot pots and dumplings Sunday as they celebrated the first day of the Lunar New Year, ushering in the Year of the Pig.

Across China, revelers brought in the New Year late Saturday and early Sunday with the boom of firecrackers and fireworks _ an ancient New Year tradition meant to drive away bad luck and scare off evil spirits. Streets were littered with tattered red paper and cardboard casings from spent fireworks.

At Beijing's Lama and White Cloud temples, faithful tossed coins at incense burners in the hope one would land in the pot and bring them good luck for the year ahead.

At a traditional fair in the capital's Ditan Park, performers sang folk songs and snippets of Peking opera for throngs of people snaking through the park, many carrying balloons and pinwheels. Vendors sold pork dumplings and other treats, such as freshly made caramel candy sculpted into chubby pig shapes.

The pig is one of 12 animals (or mythical animals in the case of the dragon) on the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac, which follows the lunar calendar. According to Chinese astrology, people born in pig years are polite, honest, hardworking and loyal. They are also lucky, which is why many Chinese like to have babies in a pig year.

Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao made separate visits to remote villages in poorer areas, chatting and cooking with locals in far western Gansu and northern Liaoning provinces. Such trips are part of efforts to show the leadership cares about those living in the countryside, where incomes average only $400 a year.

China's booming economic growth in the last several decades has pulled hundreds of millions out of poverty, but a growing wealth gap in recent years has exposed cracks that Hu and his government have acknowledged threatens social stability.

In Hong Kong, the normally bustling streets were empty as families gathered for New Year feasts and visited temples to pray.

At Hong Kong Disneyland, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse shed their usual Western clothes and wore traditional Chinese outfits. Instead of the usual Disney movie tunes, speakers in the park played classical Chinese music. There was also a loud clattering of cymbals and drums as a traditional dragon dance wound its way around the park.

In Taiwan, worshippers gathered at temples around the island, holding incense sticks and bowing in the direction of Buddhist and Taoist deities for good luck.

President Chen Shui-bian handed out traditional red envelopes to well-wishers in his home village of Hsi Chuang and prayed in a local temple with his mother.

In South Korea, highways were congested as millions of people began the journey back to the cities after visiting their hometowns for the New Year.

The Lunar New Year is also celebrated in North Korea, where school children put on a performance of "folk games, dances and songs full of optimism and enthusiasm" and expressed hope the country's leader, Kim Jong Il, would enjoy a day of rest, the North's official Korean Central News Agency reported.

Pope Benedict XVI sent his wishes to everyone celebrating the Lunar New Year during his weekly appearance from his window overlooking St. Peter's Square in Rome.

"I wish with all my heart serenity and prosperity to all those great peoples," the pope told pilgrims gathered in the square on Sunday.

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Associated Press writers William Foreman in Hong Kong, Peter Enav in Taipei, Taiwan, and Bo-mi Lim in Seoul, South Korea contributed to this report.


© 2007 The Associated Press