Year of the Dragon roars into Asia
Beijing - A billion-plus Asians welcomed the Year of the Dragon on Monday with a cacophony of fireworks, hoping the mightiest sign in the Chinese zodiac will usher in the wealth and power it represents.
From Malaysia 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 or watching dragon dances.
As the clock struck midnight, Beijing's skyline lit up with colour as families across the Chinese capital set off boxes and boxes of fireworks to ward off evil spirits in the new year - a scene repeated across the country.
Pollution levels in the city, which has come under fire for its bad air quality, spiked in the early hours of Monday morning as fireworks filled the skies with particulates, before falling back down again, official data showed.
Those living in the Philippines, meanwhile, were able to sleep in on Monday after the Lunar New Year became an official holiday for the first time, despite objections from some in the business community.
The dragon is the most favourable and revered sign in the 12-year Chinese zodiac - a symbol of royalty, fortune and power that is also used in other cultures that see in the Lunar New Year, such as in Vietnam.
As such, hospitals across China and in Chinese communities are bracing for a baby boom as couples try to have a child this year.
Nannies in Beijing and neighbouring Tianjin are charging more in 2012, and the beds in the capital's Maternity Hospital are all booked up until August, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong even took advantage of the Dragon to call on the country's residents to boost a stubbornly low birth rate, in an attempt to reduce the government's heavy reliance on foreign workers.
"I fervently hope that this year will be a big Dragon Year for babies... This is critical to preserve a Singapore core in our society," he said in his new year message.
But in Hong Kong, where tens of thousands of pregnant mainlanders come to give birth every year to gain residency rights for their babies, the Dragon may not prove such a boon as it could exacerbate problems such as limited beds and soaring delivery costs.
And according to some astrologers and geomancers, the Dragon may bring natural disasters and financial volatility to an already destabilised world.
Hong Kong feng shui master Anthony Cheng warned a "scandalous corruption case" would rock China in the second half of 2012, and also said high-ranking Chinese officials would be forced to step down, thrown behind bars or even die.
But people across Asia disregarded the doomsday predictions over the holiday, preferring to feast and celebrate with their families, and pray at temples or pagodas.
Highways in Malaysia, where 25% of the population is ethnic Chinese, were clogged at the weekend while the capital Kuala Lumpur became almost deserted as people travelled home.
In South Korea, which also celebrates the Lunar New Year, more than half of the entire population - or about 31 million people - took to roads, railways and aircraft for the holiday.
But stores in the capital Seoul - normally quiet at this time of year - bustled with activity as tens of thousands of tourists from China swamped major shopping areas to spend an expected $88m in January.
"I feel like I'm walking on the street in China. There are so many of them," Park Eun-Yong, a South Korean college student, said.
Chinese tourists also flocked to Tokyo, where interpreters in Mitsukoshi - one of Japan's most prestigious department stores - were on hand to help with purchases and announcements were made in Mandarin.