- Asia rings in Year of the Horse with fireworks, festivities
- Rough ride home for CNY
- PM: Gallop to have more babies
Posted: 30 Jan 2014 09:00 PM PST
BEIJING, Jan 31, 2014 (AFP) - Fireworks illuminated the skies across Asia and millions of families gathered together Friday to usher in the Year of the Horse, kicking off a week of celebrations that included a performance by Braveheart actress Sophie Marceau on China's annual televised gala.
Residents from China's small towns and villages to its sprawling megacities rang in the Lunar New Year, the country's most important holiday, by indulging in feasts of dumplings and rice cakes and exchanging hongbao, red envelopes stuffed with "lucky money".
Many of them were among the hundreds of millions of people, including 245 million migrant workers, who had crammed planes, trains and buses to return to their hometowns in what is the world's largest annual human migration.
Chinese communities across Asia also came together to celebrate, marking the holiday with flowers and offerings. Hong Kong was due to hold a massive fireworks display over Victoria Harbour on Saturday, the second day of the new year.
The lunar calendar is based on the cycles of the moon and through Chinese folklore ascribes 12 animals, one for each year in the rotating cycle. The horse is in the seventh position.
In China, the horse is traditionally associated with loyalty and energy, and is considered the second-most popular animal sign of the zodiac, after the dragon.
The phrase for "at once" in Chinese literally means "on horseback", and some popular New Year cards this year have featured money, houses or cars on horseback, expressing the sender's wish of speedy good fortune for the receiver.
This year, however, is set to be a dramatic one, according to Hong Kong feng-shui masters, as it is the Year of the Wood Horse - incorporating the dramatic element of fire.
Conflicts, disasters, record high temperatures, an economic chill in Asia and more trouble for pop star Justin Bieber all lie in wait this year, celebrity feng-shui master Alion Yeo told AFP earlier this week.
On Thursday, Beijing was a cacophany of light and sound as residents took to the streets to light firecrackers - traditionally believed to scare away evil spirits - into the wee hours of Friday.
But by morning, the capital was mostly quiet, as most of the migrant workers who comprise more than a third of its 20 million population had left the city to celebrate the new year in their ancestral homes.
Beijing saw a slump in fireworks sales this year amid pollution concerns among residents and a move by city officials to cut the number of licensed firework retailers by 12 percent, the state-run China Daily reported.
Levels of the small particulate pollution known as PM2.5 ranged from 140 to 160 micrograms per cubic metre from 6 pm to midnight Thursday - a figure that was still well above the World Health Organisation's recommended level of 25 micrograms, but "much better" than the all-time peak of 1,000 recorded last Lunar New Year's Eve, Beijing's environmental watchdog said Friday.
State broadcaster CCTV aired its annual five-hour gala, a tradition dating back to 1983 and featuring comedians, dancers and singers. The hugely popular programme last year drew 750 million viewers in China alone, according to the broadcaster.
For 24 years it featured Peng Liyuan, the wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is a soprano singer with the rank of army general. She retired from the show shortly after her husband joined China's Politburo in 2007.
This year it featured French actress Marceau, who performed Edith Piaf's signature song, "La Vie En Rose", in a duet with Chinese pop star Liu Huan.
But Chinese rocker Cui Jian, who inspired the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement and was in talks to perform on the show, did not feature. The Beijing News daily quoted his manager as saying he had refused to "change the words" of his songs.
In additional to giving traditional hongbao, or red envelopes, some Chinese this year have taken to sending Lunar New Year money by smartphone.
The popular mobile chat app WeChat, which has more than 600 million subscribers, this week introduced a new feature allowing users to send an electronic new year "envelope" of up to 200 yuan ($33), the China Daily reported.
Posted: 30 Jan 2014 08:00 AM PST
WUZHOU: The thrum of motorcycles echoes over a Chinese mountain road, where hundreds of thousands are shunning public transport to take the highway home during the world's largest annual human migration.
China's 245 million migrant workers – twice the entire population of Japan – generally have to travel on jam-packed trains or buses to get to their hometown to see their families for the Lunar New Year.
But this year more than 600,000 are expected to ride by motorcycle, according to state-run media, making gruelling journeys of several hundred kilometres for the country's biggest festival, while a hardened few are even cycling.
"I'm excited, I want to get back home as soon as possible," said Mo Renshuang, a shoe factory worker who stopped to stretch his legs at a rest stop several hours into his 700 kilometre trip.
He was heading from Guangdong, one of China's richest provinces, to Guangxi – one of its poorest regions. Mo has not seen his two children for half a year, he said, and had strapped a supermarket trolley to the back of his motorbike containing a suitcase, two toy cars, a toy horse and a pair of blue children's boots.
"Pretty creative, right?" he said.
More than 158,000 bikers have passed the rest stop in the last fortnight, police estimate, as riders sharing the same hometown drive together in convoys and stop for free cups of porridge.
"There are no buses to my village," said Lu Liangquan, 50, one of more than 3,000 to pass by yesterdaymorning, who had balanced a cardboard box of fruit on his bike. "Also, if you ride a motorbike you can carry on using it when you get home."
The two-wheeled journeys reflect huge growth in motorcycle ownership in China, which for years has been both the world's largest producer and consumer of the vehicles.
More than 23 million were sold in 2013 according to industry figures.
They have proved popular with workers migrating from China's poor countryside to its coastal manufacturing heartlands, who have seen wages rise by up to 10% annually in recent years but often still cannot afford a car.
China's rail and bus network is stretched to breaking point over the New Year, which authorities say will see 3.6 billion journeys, leaving many struggling to buy train tickets.
"Travelling by motorbike is quicker than taking the bus," said gardener Huang Zilin, 40, who pulled into the rest stop on a red Yamaha with his wife. "We set off at four in the morning, and my legs and feet ache," he added.
The riders – who travel on small roads to avoid heavy tolls, and wrap their feet in plastic bags to protect against cold and dirt – have been dubbed the "bike army" by the Chinese press.
Their steeds are an array of bargain-priced Chinese-branded vehicles, alongside Japanese Hondas and Suzukis.
But a handful of others were more ambitious and used pedal power alone.
"I have this returning home mood so I can stay awake. It's excitement I suppose," said Wang Zhekun, 30, an office worker for an autoparts company, who said he had cycled through the night on his red "Forever" mountain bike.
"I feel cooler than the motorbike drivers, because my engine is right here," he said, pointing to his wiry body.
Si Lingxiang, 21, wobbled up to the rest-stop on a light-framed blue bike he is riding on his 400 kilometre journey from the southern metropolis of Guangzhou to Pingnan in Guangxi.
"It's my fourth day of cycling, the seat is too small and my bottom aches," said Si, who slept the previous night in an abandoned school guardpost.
The rest stop in the city of Wuzhou has proved a publicity coup for the local Communist party committee, whose red banners jostled with posters promoting energy drinks to help with staying awake.
"Party cadres wish brothers and sisters returning home a safe journey," one read.
Nearby, on a public notice board where travellers inscribed their names with a black marker pen, one had written a short poem.
"My vehicle is cheap, I'm old and I have a lot of luggage, braving these windy roads needs courage," it read, signed "Worker returning home".
"If I'd known before I travelled this far, I'd long ago have bought an expensive car." — AFP
Posted: 30 Jan 2014 08:00 AM PST
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong urged young couples to get off to a "galloping start" in the Year of the Horse by having more babies to boost flagging birth rates.
In his Lunar New Year message, Lee said the wealthy city-state needed "enough children to form the next generation" amid concerns over the influx of immigrants.
"Unfortunately, despite our efforts to promote marriage and parenthood, our birth rates are still too low," Lee, a father of four, said.
Lee said Singapore's current fertility rate is 1.19 babies per female, down from 1.29 in 2012.
The rate for ethnic Chinese Singaporeans, who make up 74% of the resident population, is lower, at 1.06.
"We must try to do better. I hope the Year of the Horse will see some improvement," he said.
The 61-year-old leader noted that Valen-tine's Day this year would coincide with the auspicious 15th day of Lunar New Year festivities known as "Chap Goh Mei".
"Almost 300 couples have registered to marry on this auspicious day, so we are off to a galloping start.
"I hope to hear more wedding bells and newborns' cries throughout the year."
Despite a series of so-called "baby bonuses" to encourage couples to have children, Singapore has not been able to boost its fertility rate to the 2.1 level needed to maintain the native-born population.
Its low birth rate has forced the government to rely on foreign workers. Foreigners now comprise a third of the 5.4 million population.
The influx, however, has sparked protests and prompted the government to tighten immigration flows in recent years.
Ethnic Chinese around the world will usher in the Year of the Horse today. — AFP
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