Asians Usher in the Year of the Pig

Asians flocked to temples, parks and Disneyland on Sunday to pray, play, eat, and celebrate the first day of the Lunar New Year, ushering in the Year of the Pig.

At the Lama Temple and White Cloud Temple in Beijing, faithful burned incense and tossed coins at incense burners, believing that if they landed in the pot they would have better luck in the New Year.

At a traditional fair in the capital's Ditan Park, performers sang folk songs and snippets of Peking opera for throngs of people snaking through the park, many carrying balloons and pinwheels. Vendors sold pork dumplings and other treats, such as freshly made caramel candy sculpted into chubby pig shapes.

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The pig is one of 12 animals (or mythical animals in the case of the dragon) on the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac, which follows the lunar calendar. According to Chinese astrology, people born in pig years are polite, honest, hardworking and loyal. They are also lucky, which is why many Chinese like to have babies in a pig year.

Across China, revelers ushered in the New Year Saturday night and early Sunday morning by exploding firecrackers and fireworks — an ancient New Year tradition meant to drive away bad luck and scare off evil spirits.

In Beijing, the streets were littered with tattered red paper and the cardboard casings from spent fireworks.

The official Xinhua News Agency reported that in Beijing 125 people were reported injured from fireworks, including one person who lost both eyes. Police said shoddy fireworks were to blame.

Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao made separate visits to remote villages in poorer areas, chatting and cooking with locals in far western Gansu and northern Liaoning provinces.

Such trips have become an annual ritual for the leadership — part of efforts to show that the government cares about those living in the countryside, where incomes average only $400 a year.

Hu fried dough twists with farmers on the outskirts of Gansu's Dingxi city, helped cut traditional door decorations from red paper, and received a basket of potatoes from a poor farmer, state media said.

China's booming economic growth in the last several decades has pulled hundreds of millions out of poverty, but a growing wealth gap in recent years has exposed cracks that Hu and his government have acknowledged threatens social stability.

In Hong Kong, the normally bustling streets were virtually empty as families gathered for feasts of chicken and hot pots piled high with pork, shrimp and vegetables.

At Hong Kong Disneyland, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse shed their usual Western clothes and wore traditional Chinese clothing. Mickey wore a red beanie with a matching silk shirt trimmed in gold. Minnie showed off a bright red cheongsam — a tight-fitting Chinese women's dress.

Instead of the usual Disney movie tunes, speakers in the park played classical Chinese music. There was also a loud clattering of cymbals and drums as a traditional dragon dance wound its way around the park.

In Taiwan, firecrackers exploded late Saturday and early Sunday to usher in the New Year. Worshippers gathered at temples all around the island, holding incense sticks and bowing in the direction of Buddhist and Taoist deities in an effort to secure good luck throughout the coming year.

Major highways in South Korea were congested on Sunday as millions began returning home after visiting family to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

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