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Asia Ushers in 'Year of the Monkey'

Much of Asia is marking the arrival of the Lunar New Year on Thursday under the sign of the monkey. Much of the region will see three days of celebrations to mark the holiday. Southeast Asia's ethnic Chinese communities are hoping for a busy and prosperous year ahead.

Across Southeast Asia, Chinese communities are celebrating the New Year with fireworks, feasts and visits to pay respects to elders and ancestors.

In the Chinese zodiac, this is the year of the monkey, considered lively and wise. The year of the monkey is seen as offering optimism for a region that last year battled the SARS virus and faced economic and security problems because of the war in Iraq.

James Lu, executive director of the Hong Kong Hotels Association, says the sign of the monkey is a welcome one.

"The monkey is witty, hardworking. The monkey is flexible, active. The year of the monkey should be a year of plenty of activities and very productive ones," he said.

Economic growth across Asia has been strong, adding to the celebratory mood as families gather to mark the holiday. More people feel they can afford to travel to visit relatives, or just relax on vacation. China's robust economy means there are more tourists from the mainland visiting the beaches and shopping districts of Southeast Asia.

Heavy bookings have been reported on trains in Vietnam marking the Lunar "Tet" holiday, and on planes traveling from China to Thailand for the holiday.

Pacific Asia Travel Association executive KC Sim says the region's ethnic Chinese communities are on the move.

"You could imagine ethnic Chinese traveling back to their homes at this time of the year. Back to Vietnam, back to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia - everywhere where Chinese have taken up roots," he said.

Hotels and restaurants have been preparing for guests who will spend billions of dollars for New Year celebrations.

For much of last year, people in Asia cut spending because they were worried about the health of the region's economy. Hong Kong Hotels Association's Mr. Lu says that now, they are spending their extra cash, and keeping restaurants and department stores busy.

"The retail restaurant, F and B (food and beverage) market has been performing extremely well. So there is general optimism across the city and also employment figures have improved," he said.

In Jakarta, the celebrations this year are taking on a special meaning. Indonesia's ethnic Chinese community has long faced discrimination, and was barred from openly celebrating the New Year holiday for 30 years. In 1998, the community was the target of bloody and brutal attacks during riots by local Muslim youths.

But since 2000, things have changed as the restrictions, dating back to 1967, have ended. Last year, for the first time, the Lunar New Year was declared a national holiday. Now the city's hotels and department stores are geared up celebrations - ready for crowds of shoppers and diners.

Human rights worker Ester Yusuf says reforms to discriminatory Indonesian laws in recent years have given the country's ethnic Chinese community something to celebrate.

"This year, they are more happy because they heard about the new regulation and they can celebrate the New Year for Chinese," she said.

In Malaysia, where 30 percent of the population is of Chinese ancestry, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is marking his first Lunar New Year as the country's leader.

Mr. Abdullah and his wife have mailed 3,000 New Year cards with a message of peace and harmony to Chinese-based political parties, community leaders, educational organizations and businesses. In neighboring Singapore, special New Year underwear featuring monkey designs have been a big hit among shoppers, reflective of a zodiac sign that loves to have fun.

Here in Bangkok's Chinatown, residents are preparing to celebrate the New Year and to play host to members of the Thai royal family. Red banners and lanterns adorn the main thoroughfares, while souvenir and lucky charm sellers, as well as gold traders, ply their trades.

Artist Jiang-jing Mei is selling paintings with Chinese calligraphy and wishes for wealth and happiness.

Miss Mei says in the past few days, the streets have been filled with people busy buying their holiday needs. Street parades of lion dancers and fireworks will fill the center of Bangkok's traditional Chinese business community on Thursday.