BEIJING—A billion-plus Asians ushered in the Year of the Snake on Sunday with a cacophony of fireworks, after a Chinese televised gala featuring megastars, including Celine Dion, kicked off a week of festivities.
From Australia to South Korea, millions of people traveled huge distances to reunite with their families for Lunar New Year—the most important holiday of the year for many in Asia—indulging in feasts and celebrations.
As the clock struck midnight, Beijing’s skyline lit up with color as residents braved freezing temperatures to set off fireworks, traditionally believed to ward off evil spirits—a scene repeated across China.
But the capital’s streets were eerily quiet on Sunday, with
9 million out of 20 million residents returning to their ancestral homes for the festival, according to the state-run China Daily.
On Saturday night, Beijing saw just 25 injuries and 83 fire emergencies related to fireworks, down almost 29 percent and 45 percent, respectively, from last year.
This year also saw a sharp reduction in the sale of fireworks as heavy smog in recent weeks has fueled fears that Beijing’s notorious air pollution levels could touch dangerous highs during the festival.
More than 260,000 boxes of fireworks were sold in the city in the days leading up to the New Year, a 37-percent drop compared to last year’s sales, after the smog left citizens “worried,” the Beijing News reported.
State broadcaster CCTV aired its annual gala variety show during the countdown to the New Year—which rakes in hundreds of millions of viewers—featuring a gamut of iconic stars, including Dion who sang in Mandarin.
Dion performed the classic Chinese folk song “Jasmine Flower” in a duet with local idol Song Zuying, before launching into her global hit “My Heart Will Go On” from the Hollywood blockbuster “Titanic.”
Celebrations were also reported aboard Chinese patrol ships in waters surrounding East China Sea islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, which are at the center of a bitter territorial row with Japan.
According to reports, the dispute had led to a ban on sales of fireworks labeled “Tokyo Explosion,” though a stall in southern Beijing visited by Agence France-Presse was still offering them on Saturday.
In China, the snake has traditionally been seen as a symbol of wisdom, wealth and longevity, but it is considered less auspicious than other animals in the 12-year Chinese Zodiac, such as the dragon.
In Taiwan, temples were thronged with the faithful seeking blessings, with President Ma Ying-jeou seen handing out traditional “red envelopes” with money (a token Tw$1—equivalent to 3 US cents) to well-wishers in Taipei.
People also rushed to lotto booths to buy special Lunar New Year lottery tickets with a jackpot of Tw$200 million ($6.7 million).
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong used the occasion to exhort his compatriots to extend a baby boom in the just-passed Year of the Dragon, which saw a 7.4-percent rise in the birth rate amid rising complaints over the number of foreign workers.
“We gladly welcomed more babies during the Dragon Year and hope that this continues into the Year of the Snake,” he said.
In Hong Kong, thousands of people were expected to watch the annual night parade Sunday, at which illuminated floats would be showcased in a giant outdoor party with the city’s iconic Victoria Harbour as the backdrop.
In North Korea’s capital Pyongyang, streams of residents offered flowers and bowed deeply before giant statues of national founder Kim Il-sung and his son and late leader Kim Jong-il.
In Sydney, fireworks overnight welcomed the Lunar New Year. Prime Minister Julia Gillard wished the country’s 900,000 people of Chinese ancestry a “healthy and prosperous Year of the Snake” on Twitter.
The New Year typically marks the largest annual movement of people as millions of people across China and other Asian countries squeeze into packed trains and buses to journey home to spend the season with their families.