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Asian nations giving enthusiastic welcome to 2013

  • Article by: ROD McGUIRK
  • Associated Press
  • December 31, 2012 - 5:22 AM

CANBERRA, Australia - Fiscal cliff? Recession? Not in Asia, where the first countries to see 2013 are enthusiastically welcoming the new year.

Increasingly democratic Myanmar is having a public countdown for the first time. Jakarta plans a huge street party befitting Indonesia's powering economy.

In Sydney, eager revelers camped Sunday night on the shores of the harbor to get the best vantage points as 1.5 million were expected to gather to watch the fireworks show centered on the Sydney Harbor Bridge.

The shores were packed when an eight-minute preliminary show for young children exploded over the harbor three hours before the main event in Sydney and as the clock struck midnight in Samoa and other South Pacific islands to the east, ushering in the new year there.

In Hong Kong, this year's 12.5 million Hong Kong dollar ($1.6 million) fireworks display is billed by organizers as the biggest ever in the southern Chinese city. Police expected as many as 100,000 people to watch, local news reports said.

The buoyant economies of the Asia-Pacific are prepared to party with renewed optimism despite the so-called fiscal cliff threatening to reverberate globally from the United States and the tattered economies of Europe.

Celebrations were planned around the world, with hundreds of thousands expected to fill Times Square in New York City to watch the drop of a Waterford crystal-studded ball.

One day after dancing in the snow to celebrate the first anniversary of leader Kim Jong Un's ascension to supreme commander, North Koreans were preparing to mark the arrival of the new year, marked as "Juche 102" on North Korean calendars. Juche means self-reliance, the North Korean ideology of independence promoted by national founder Kim Il Sung, who was born 102 years ago. His grandson now rules North Korea.

In New Delhi, the festive mood was marred by the death Saturday of a young rape victim.

Hotels, clubs and residents' associations in the Indian capital decided to cancel planned festivities and asked people to light candles to express their solidarity with the victim whose plight sparked public rallies for women's safety.

"Let there be no New Year celebrations across the country. It will be a major tribute to the departed soul," said Praveen Khandelwal, secretary-general of the Confederation of All India Traders, an umbrella group of operators of shops and businesses across the country.

In a field in Myanmar's largest city, Yangon, workers were testing a giant digital countdown screen with the backdrop of the revered Shwedagon pagoda.

Arranged by local Forever Media group and Index Creative Village, a Thai event organizer, the celebration is the first public New Year countdown in Myanmar, a country ruled for almost five decades by military regimes that discouraged or banned big public gatherings.

"We are planning this public New Year event because we want residents of Yangon to enjoy the public countdown like in other countries," said Win Thura Hlaing, managing director of Forever Blossom company, a subsidiary of Forever Media.

With live music performances by celebrities, light shows, food stalls, fireworks and other activities, the countdown is expected to draw 50,000 people, Win Thura Hlaing said.

Jakarta's street party centers on a 7-kilometer (4-mile) main thoroughfare closed to all traffic from nightfall until after midnight. Workers erected 16 large stages along the normally car-clogged, eight-lane highway through the heart of the city. Indonesia's booming economy is a rare bright spot amid global gloom and is bringing prosperity — or the hope of it — to Indonesians.

Spirits in the capital have been further raised by the election of a new, populist governor who is pledging to tackle the city's massive infrastructure problems.

In Sydney, Lord Mayor Clover Moore said about 1.5 million spectators were expected to line the harbor to watch the 6.6 million Australian dollar ($6.9 million) fireworks display, while another 2 million Australians among a population of 22 million would watch on television.

"This is really putting Australia on the map in terms of welcoming people to the new year," Moore told reporters before the event.

Thousands lined the harbor shore in festive crowds under a blue summer sky by late afternoon, their number undiminished by Australian government warnings that the Washington deadlock on the U.S. debt crisis was partly to blame for a slowing Australian economy.

Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue was hosting the event.

Florida tourist Melissa Sjostedt was among the thousands gathered near a southern pylon of the bridge. She said seeing the fireworks would fulfill an ambition that began a decade ago when she read about them in National Geographic magazine.

"Ever since that, I've always wanted to see this for real, live, in person," she said.

New Yorker Mathieu Herman said he had flown to Australia specifically for the New Year celebrations on the harbor.

"I saw it last year on TV and it looked fabulous. I said to myself it's something I've just got to do," Herman said.

Despite a somber mood in the Philippines due to devastation from a recent typhoon, a key problem for authorities remained how to prevent revelers from setting off huge illegal firecrackers — including some nicknamed "Goodbye Philippines" and "Bin Laden" — that maim and injure hundreds of Filipinos each year, including many children.

A government scare tactic involving doctors displaying brutal-looking scalpels used for amputations for firecracker victims has not fully worked in the past so health officials came up with a novel idea: Go Gangnam style.

A government health official, Eric Tayag, donned the splashy outfit of South Korean star PSY and danced to his Youtube hit "Gangnam Style" video while preaching against the use of illegal firecrackers on TV, in schools and in public arenas.

"The campaign has become viral," Tayag said. "We've asked kids and adults to stay away from big firecrackers and just dance the Gangnam and they're doing it."

Hong Kong feng shui master Raymond Lo predicted 2013 would be less turbulent than 2012 because the Chinese New Year in February will usher in the year of the snake, bringing an end to the year of the dragon, which was associated with water. Water is one of the five elements in feng shui theory, the Chinese practice of arranging objects and choosing dates to improve luck.

"Water is fear. So that's why we have had so much turbulence especially in the winter months," such as doomsday prophecies, school shootings and concerns about the fiscal cliff, said Lo.

"But the good news is that the coming year of the snake is the first time that fire has come back since 2007. Fire actually is the opposite to water, fire is happiness. So therefore the year of the snake is a much more optimistic year. So you can see signs of economic recovery now," he added.

"The positive thing is that people are very optimistic, therefore it will have a very strong drive on the economic recovery. We expect the stock market will do well, the property market will do well," Lo said.

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Associated Press writers Aye Aye Win in Yangon, Myanmar; Jean Lee in Pyongyang, North Korea; Chris Brummitt in Jakarta, Indonesia; Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong; Ashok Sharma in New Delhi; and Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.

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