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China celebrates Year of the Monkey
( 2004-01-22 14:09) (Agencies)

Joyful explosions echoed across Beijing the capital Thursday and scarlet firecracker papers littered the streets as Chinese welcomed the Year of the Monkey, a time they hope brings prosperity to a country that has made the notion its official policy.

A vendor sells stuffed toy monkeys at the Temple of the Earth in Beijing on the eve of Chinese New Year, January 21, 2004. Residents in China's capital flock to temple fairs during the New Year of the Monkey, which starts on January 22, to enjoy performances of martial arts, acrobatics, folk dances and fashion shows. [Reuters]
"The golden monkey presents us with fortune; our sacred provinces welcome spring," said the Beijing Youth Daily, one of the few of Beijing's dozens of papers that published abbreviated editions on the Lunar New Year's first morning.

The departure of millions from Beijing for the holiday left its usually hectic, traffic-choked streets eerily quiet at rush hour. Cars were moving smoothly on the city's "ring roads," the highways that encircle it an unheard-of notion anytime the sun is shining.

Even 24-hour stores were shuttered and bolted, and traditional morning exercisers were absent from parks. The skyline's ubiquitous cranes, symbols of the frantic building boom, had been stilled.

Fireworks resonated through the night, and Roman candles shot into the sky and cascaded over the Foreign Ministry building and the Workers Stadium despite a city ban on such explosives that goes largely ignored and, by all appearances, unenforced.

Shanghai, China's biggest city, uncorked an all-night fireworks barrage, with bottle rockets soaring into the sky and bundles of tiny firecrackers detonated in buckets placed in the street, their containers amplifying the sound.

"It's just unbelievably loud and it goes on all night," said convenience store clerk Liu Yuhua. "No one can sleep, not even with ear plugs in."

Firecrackers are considered an efficient method of driving out evil spirits and a delightfully noisy way to celebrate, and they have been a staple of Lunar New Year celebrations in China for centuries.

Newspapers and television stations are brimming with simian iconography, from the mythical Chinese "Monkey King" to the ape at the top of the screen in the old video game "Donkey Kong." One newspaper, the Beijing News, showed a family pinching dough for homemade "jiaozi," the Chinese dumplings so popular during new year celebrations.

China Central Television, in a New Year's special, brought out monkey figures and dancers for a music-drenched celebration. Also honored were nurses who helped the country fight SARS, as well as China's newest national hero, astronaut Yang Liwei.

"People all over the world have marched into a new century. Let's cherish peace and do away with wars," said Yang, who orbited the Earth in October.

"World peace should be as permanent as the sky and the earth. On this special occasion, with our love for our motherland, let's wait for the dawn of a new year. Let's show our respect for our great nation," he said.

In Hong Kong, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa conveyed his greetings to the territory's citizens on television, radio and the Internet on Wednesday, saying good times are back after economic faltering and last year's SARS epidemic.

In Taiwan, Chen Shui-bian, handed out thousands of red envelopes containing money Thursday to people in his hometown in southern Taiwan to mark the Lunar New Year.

Financially, the Chinese government hopes the Year of the Monkey will be a prosperous one. Figures announced this week say China's economy grew at a rate of 9.1 per cent during the past year, its best performance since 1996.

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