Raucous celebrations as Asia greets Year of Snake

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 travelled 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 colour as residents braved freezing temperatures to set off fireworks, traditionally believed to ward off evil spirits -- a scene repeated across China.

But the capital' streets were eerily quiet on Sunday, with nine million out of 20 million residents returning to their ancestral homes for the festival, according to the state-run China Daily.

This year also saw a sharp reduction in the sale of fireworks as heavy smog in recent weeks has fuelled 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 Celine 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 centre of a bitter territorial row with Japan.

According to reports, the dispute had led to a ban on sales of fireworks labelled "Tokyo Explosion", though a stall in southern Beijing visited by AFP 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) 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 ($6.89 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 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 the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city of Hong Kong, thousands of people are expected to watch the annual night parade Sunday, at which illuminated floats will be showcased in a giant outdoor party with the city's iconic Victoria Harbour as the backdrop.

In Sydney fireworks overnight welcomed the Lunar New Year though the city's major event, the annual Twilight Parade featuring some 3,500 performers, will not be held until next weekend.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard wished the country's 900,000 people of Chinese ancestry a "healthy and prosperous Year of the Snake" on Twitter. Ministers in her government said it was an important celebration of Australian diversity.

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.

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