Originally created 02/17/99

Year of the Rabbit begins



BEIJING -- The Chinese-speaking world welcomed the Year of the Rabbit today with fireworks, dragon dances and hopes for an end to Asia's economic troubles.

China's television news and newspapers, all controlled by the government, reported almost exclusively on merry-making for the nation's biggest holiday -- highlighting the upbeat.

Rural Chinese welcomed the New Year with deafening blasts of fireworks, traditionally meant to scare off evil.

In Shanghai, China's biggest metropolis, workers swept up piles of debris in the streets today after a thunderous night of fireworks set off in defiance of a ban.

During the night, Shanghai shook with fireworks ignited in nearly every street and rockets launched from the tops of buildings.

Even in more staid Beijing, where fireworks also are banned, random bangs lasted through the night and into the morning.

Millions of Chinese took advantage of a seven-day government-ordered break and traveled to their hometowns to gather with their families and watch lion dances and other entertainment at fairs and parades. Others broke from tradition and went sightseeing instead, an alternative edging up in popularity.

But worries about unemployment caused spending to be curbed this year.

Tens of millions of workers have been laid off from defunct state-run factories, farmers chafe under heavy taxes and slow income growth. State media reported that even in the relatively affluent capital, spending on the lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, was down.

To attract the frugal shopper, department stores ran holiday sales, and a nationwide welfare lottery appealed to the traditional lunar New Year wish that doubles as a greeting: "Get rich."

In the Chinese zodiac, the Year of the Rabbit is believed to bring peace, prosperity and good luck. Throughout Asia, many were hoping that the New Year might bring a change of fortune after months of economic adversity.

For cheer and good luck, office buildings and hotels in Hong Kong, mired in its worst recession in decades, were festooned with the customary symbols of the season -- tangerine trees and narcissus.

"After the holidays, I am sure that in our typical Hong Kong way, we will all be back at work striving for a better tomorrow," Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa said in his annual New Year's message.

In his annual speech to the nation, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji said he expected Hong Kong's troubles to ease and the rest of the nation to remain stable as the People's Republic approaches the 50th anniversary of its founding.

"Under complicated circumstances both at home and overseas, our great motherland remains prosperous," Zhu said.

Zhu made the customary appeal for unity with Taiwan, which has been ruled independently of Beijing since the communists took power in 1949.

The Taiwanese celebrated the New Year today by setting off firecrackers and beating drums. Millions of people prayed at Buddhist or Taoist Temples to welcome the New Year amid wafts of incense smoke and food offerings. A temple to five smiling gods of wealth was crowded with business people praying for better fortunes.

In Singapore, animal lovers were worried about the high number of rabbits being bought as pets, only to be abandoned later. Economic hard times there also meant more restaurants, shops and food stalls were to remain open today and Wednesday because the owners and their staff need the income.