Fireworks, lion dances greet Year of the Rabbit

Asia rang in the Year of the Rabbit on Thursday with bursts of fireworks, colourful lion dances and prayers that the bunny will live up to its reputation for happiness and good fortune in 2011.

From Sydney to Singapore to Pyongyang, the Lunar New Year was marked by a thundering barrage of firecrackers, family feasts, musical performances - and rabbits galore.

In Beijing and Shanghai, as in cities and towns across China, fireworks lit up the sky at midnight as millions celebrated the arrival of the new year. The salvo rumbled on through the early hours of Thursday.

Fireworks are set off to ring in the year and ward off evil spirits but each year hundreds are reported hurt or killed in accidents across the nation of 1.3 billion people, and firefighters in tinder-dry Beijing were on high alert.

"We let off firecrackers to chase away the 'nian', a bad animal in Chinese legend. That way, it will not come and disturb you.... it's tradition," said Wang Kuang, one of many visiting the huge temple fair in Beijing's Ditan Park.

A five-star hotel in the northeastern city of Shenyang was gutted by fire early Thursday, in what police said was a blaze triggered by the fireworks, Xinhua news agency reported. No one was hurt.

Snow and chilly weather across much of China failed to dampen the festive cheer among an estimated 700 million people who had travelled home for the holiday or were on the move - an annual exodus that swamps the nation's transport system.

The holiday, which runs through next week, is the only time that many of the country's estimated 230 million migrant workers are able to visit their families.

Families typically gather for several days of feasting and partying, while youths receive cash gifts of red envelopes, or "hong bao". People also visit temples, burning incense and praying for health and wealth.

Amid public concerns about soaring food and housing prices, Premier Wen Jiabao pledged in his New Year's message this week that the country's leaders would work to keep inflation in check and curb real estate speculation.

The Internet is driving a Chinese New Year rabbit-related spending frenzy, with thousands of online discounts offered for everything from alcohol to food and trips.

People are also rushing to buy bunnies as pets, but animal rights activists fear the cuddly creatures could suffer from neglect or be abandoned once the novelty has worn off.

The rabbit, occupying the fourth position in the Chinese zodiac, is closely linked to the moon and symbolises happiness and good fortune.

In Taiwan, those hoping to try their luck early in the new year are snapping up lottery tickets, with the jackpot, due to be unveiled on Friday, expected to reach Tw$1 billion (US$33 million) after eight consecutive rollovers.

US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent Lunar New Year greetings, with Clinton pledging that Washington would "forge constructive relationships" throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

In Sydney, organisers were planning a vibrant street parade for Sunday night expected to draw 100,000, and dragon boat races in the city's Darling Harbour.

In South Korea, more than 31 million people, or 62 percent of the population, were expected to be on the move this week.

In the North, where the holiday was only restored in 1989, leader Kim Jong-Il attended a Lunar New Year concert symbolising "the indomitable heroic spirit" of the communist state's army and people, official media said Thursday.

Many - including brokerages - are banking on the sensitive rabbit to usher in a calm 12 months after the Year of the Tiger brought a spate of deadly natural disasters to China such as earthquakes and mudslides.

But the bunnies in a video cartoon that went viral on the Chinese Internet were anything but tranquil.

Their revolt against brutal tiger overlords - a thinly veiled swipe at China's communist rulers - was a huge hit before the video was yanked by online censors.

In Malaysia, flash floods have ruined the holiday mood, with key roads closed to traffic and the train service to Johor state and neighbouring Singapore cancelled.

While much of Asia celebrated the Year of the Rabbit, Vietnam struck a note of independence from the dominance of Chinese culture and marked the beginning of the Year of the Cat.

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