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Updated Monday, December 31, 2012 at 02:05 PM

Asian nations first to welcome 2013 with fireworks, street parties

By ROD McGUIRK
Associated Press

CANBERRA, Australia — Sydney’s skyline erupted with tons of exploding fireworks as revelers cheered in the new year from the city’s crammed harbor in the world’s first major celebration for 2013.

The enthusiastic welcome to 2013 was continuing on a grand scale across Asia, with extravagant firework displays lighting up the skies in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. Increasingly democratic Myanmar, ruled for almost five decades by military regimes that discouraged or banned big public gatherings, was preparing for a public countdown for the first time. Jakarta planned a huge street party befitting Indonesia’s powering economy.

The buoyant economies of the Asia-Pacific were partying 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.

In austerity-hit Europe, many cities will be burning off part of their battered budgets in spectacular fireworks displays, although some municipalities — including the Cypriot capital, Nicosia — canceled their celebrations in light of the economic crisis. Nicosia said 16,000 euros ($21,000) saved from the canceled event will be given to some 320 needy schoolchildren.

Scotland’s Edinburgh traditionally hosts one of the biggest New Year’s Eve parties in Europe, and belt-tightening hasn’t blighted the mood there. Organizers say that some 75,000 people are expected for the Scottish capital’s Hogmanay — or year-end — celebrations.

Sydney’s balmy summer night was split by 7 tons of fireworks fired from roof tops and barges, many cascading from the Sydney Harbor Bridge, in a 6.6 million Australian dollar ($6.9 million) pyrotechnic extravaganza billed by organizers as the world’s largest.

In Hong Kong, tens of thousands of people lined the Victoria Harbor to view this year’s 12.5 million Hong Kong dollar ($1.6 million) fireworks display, said to be the biggest ever in the southern Chinese city.

One day after dancing in the snow to celebrate the first anniversary of leader Kim Jong Un’s ascension to supreme commander, North Koreans marked 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 a field in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, about 72,000 people gathered two hours ahead of midnight for the first public New Year countdown in the country.

Hundreds of people danced and swayed to musical performances on a huge colorfully lit stage, while other revelers — both young and old — sat on mats they brought with them or perused food stalls as fireworks burst above.

“This is very exciting and also our first experience in celebrating the New Year at a big countdown gathering. We feel like we are in a different world,” said Yu Thawda, a university student who came with three of her friends.

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.

Jakarta’s street party centers on a 7-kilometer (4-mile) 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.

The Sydney crowds were undiminished by Australian government warnings that the Washington deadlock on the U.S. debt crisis was partly to blame for a slowing Australian economy.

Florida tourist Melissa Sjostedt was among the thousands gathered near a southern pylon of the bridge for the countdown, hosted by pop star Kylie Minogue. Sjostedt said that 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.

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.

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; Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines; and Sylvia Hui and Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.


Associated Press
Fireworks explode in the sky above Sydney Harbour during the New Year celebrations in Sydney, Australia, where it’s already Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013.




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