Chinese-speaking world ushers in lunar Year of the Horse

Tuesday, February 12th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BEIJING (AP) _ Millions clapped their hands in prayer and burned incense sticks at Buddhist and Taoist temples across the Chinese-speaking world Tuesday to celebrate the lunar Year of the Horse.

The visits followed a night of popping firecrackers, clanging gongs and colorful dragon dances in cities and Chinatowns throughout Asia. Images of horses _ a symbol of strength and success _ appeared on skyscrapers, billboards and parade floats around the region.

The Year of the Horse comes every 12 years.

China's leaders formally celebrated Monday night in the red-decked Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square.

Premier Zhu Rongji proclaimed 2001 a year of great accomplishments, including China's entry into the World Trade Organization and clinching of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

In some areas, the approach of midnight on Monday _ and with it the year 2002 by the traditional lunar calendar _ brought a roar of fireworks explosions strong enough to rattle windows and shake homes.

Beijing's night sky burst with red, yellow and green as residents set off private displays of fireworks, ignoring a ban covering all but a few public places.

It was quieter Tuesday morning, when thousands gathered within the red-painted walls of Yonghegong Tibetan Buddhist temple _ one of several temples in the Chinese capital thronged with revelers.

Children were dressed in head-to-toe red, blue or yellow satin embroidered suits. Adults also wore brightly colored Chinese jackets as they placed incense sticks into large bronze cauldrons and summoned the gods by clapping their hands. Traditional prayers call for health, wealth and a peaceful life.

Others stayed home to watch a 24-hour music show featuring patriotic songs by uniformed army choirs and troupes of costumed children waving flags with military precision.

In China's modern commercial hub of Shanghai, cell phone networks struggled to keep up with almost 4 million calls and messages from New Year's well-wishers in the 30 minutes around midnight, the Jiefang Daily newspaper reported.

Shanghai also allowed 125 prison inmates to celebrate with their families for good behavior, government-run media said.

Despite the festivities, some Chinese astrologers warned the Year of the Horse will be a ``blind year'' _ a bad time in world economics and politics when couples should avoid getting married.

``Financially this year is very bad, because of our big brother, America,'' said Kuan Siew Meow, an ethnic Chinese astrologer in Singapore. ``In Afghanistan, it will continue through the year. In the Year of the Horse I don't see any immediate peace.''

But most of the region celebrated anyway. Hong Kong's stock and gold markets shut down for three days Tuesday, with tens of thousands of people lining downtown streets to see a parade featuring lion dancers, dragon floats and the San Francisco 49ers cheerleaders.

Hundreds also gathered at the Tree of Wishes in Tai Po, a village in Hong Kong's New Territories. Tradition holds that wishes written on orange or red paper and thrown at the tree will come true in the new year.

In Taiwan, millions prayed at Buddhist and Taoist temples amid incense smoke, food offerings and horse-shaped lanterns. People also lined up outside street-corner lottery booths to spend New Year's ``lucky money'' on tickets for a possible record $7 million jackpot.

A lottery was held in Bangkok, Thailand, to celebrate the 110th anniversary of Chinatown. For good luck, Thais pinned lottery tickets onto a huge dragon with a gold-painted head and 2,100-foot red plastic tail.

Celebrations extended to other parts of Asia and the Pacific as well, where Chinese culture and ethnic migrants have had a big influence.

South Korea marked the first day of the lunar New Year by briefly opening a train station near its fortified border with North Korea. About 650 South Koreans, many weeping and bowing toward the North, prayed for relatives in North Korea they haven't seen since the 1950-53 Korean War.

In a New Year's message Monday, Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong noted the ongoing war against terrorism, warning his countrymen to beware of radical groups like the Islamic Jemaah Islamiyah, which had 15 members arrested by Singapore police in December.

But residents of Tawau, a town on Malaysia's east coast, saw a fortuitous end to the Year of Snake with the rescue of a 16-foot python from a drainage hole. The python was donated to a local zoo, The Star newspaper reported.

Ethnic Chinese families in Malaysia with members born in the Year of the Horse were feted by neighbors and friends. The Star newspaper gave front-page treatment to the clan of Ong Leong Keong, 72, who awaits the birth of a great-grandchild this year _ four generations of horses.

Malaysian leaders also visited an open house hosted by the Malaysian Chinese Association, part of a yearly ritual supporting racial harmony. This Southeast Asian nation was bloodied by 1969 clashes between the majority Malay Muslims and minority Chinese.

New Zealand's Parliament marked the lunar New Year by apologizing to its 81,000 ethnic Chinese for 50-year taxes and other discriminatory measures once aimed at keeping out Chinese migrants.

``We believe an act of reconciliation is required to ensure that full closure can be reached on this chapter in our nation's history,'' Prime Minister Helen Clark told the assembly.