World bids a relieved adieu to a rocky year

Fireworks explode over Sydney Harbor, as the world's first major city to ring in '09 celebrates with cheers, beers and a sense of relief.

sydney new years 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
sydney new years 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Fireworks exploded in a kaleidoscopic shower of light over Sydney's shimmering harbor Wednesday, as the world's first major city to ring in 2009 celebrated the end of a decidedly rocky year with cheers, beers and a sense of relief. Spectator Randolph King, 63, of York, England, whose retirement fund was gutted in the global financial crisis, summed up the feeling of many across the world as 2008 came to a close: "I'm looking forward to 2009," he said. "Because it can't get much worse." Facing the end of a year that saw global markets come crashing down - taking the world's morale with them - party-goers everywhere struggled to forget their troubles on what is typically a joyous night. In the Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo spoke of hope for better days to come, while in Hong Kong, some admitted they were too depressed over their monetary woes to join in the revelry. And in Malaysia, the government - mindful of the shaky economy - opted against sponsoring any celebration at all. In Sydney, the midnight pyrotechnic extravaganza, which organizers hoped would give revelers a brief respite from the global gloom, drew a cheering crowd of more than a million people. Fireworks zigged and zagged against the backdrop of Sydney's famed Harbor Bridge and simulated rain, thunder and lightning built toward a booming "creation storm," in keeping with the evening's theme of new beginnings. "It is about reflecting and looking at what's happened in the past and moving forward," the celebration's creative director, Rhoda Roberts, said of the night's "creation" theme, chosen in part to reflect the struggles of 2008. "It's a time for the community to gather, to reflect, and also to move on and to simply have a little bit of joy and celebration in their lives." But in Hong Kong, where thousands were expected at popular Victoria Harbor for a midnight fireworks display, those who had investments linked to collapsed US bank Lehman Brothers said there was little joy to be found. "I don't think there's any reason for me to celebrate after knowing that my investment is worth nothing now," said electrical repairman Chan Hon-ming, who had purchased a US$30,000 Lehman-backed investment. In India, many were happy to see the end of 2008, during which the country was rocked by a series of terrorist attacks in several cities culminating in a three-day siege in Mumbai in which gunmen killed 164 people. "The year 2008 can best be described as a year of crime, terrorist activities, bloodshed and accidents," said Tavishi Srivastava, 51, an office worker in the northern city of Lucknow. "I sincerely hope that 2009 will be a year of peace and progress." The year was also tough on India's economy. Rising inflation and the global meltdown slowed the growth needed to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, while stock exchanges plummeted, hitting the rich and middle class. In Tokyo, dozens of volunteers stirred huge pots of New Year's rice-cake soup, pitched tents and doled out blankets and clothing to the needy. The "New Year's Village for Temporary Workers" was set up for the first time this year to provide free meals and shelter in a park. About 100 people signed up to spend New Year's Eve at the village, which will hold a countdown ceremony and be open through January 5. Japan has long boasted a system of lifetime employment at major companies, but that has unraveled this year amid the financial crisis. "There's no work," muttered Mitsuo Kobayashi, 61, picking up a wool scarf, a coat and pants at the village, and stuffing them in his paper bag. "Who knows what next year will bring?" In Thailand, after a year of near-daily protests _-and six months in which demonstrations all but paralyzed the government - the country was finally calm on the last day of 2008 as loyalists of ousted ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra took off for a five-day national holiday. Many of the protesters come from Thailand's rural northeast and have few opportunities to get home except for longer holidays like New Year's. Celebrations were muted in China, where fireworks and feasting are reserved mainly for the Lunar New Year, which in 2009 begins on January 26. In Beijing, President Hu Jintao summed up the year's challenges and successes ranging from the devastating Sichuan earthquake - that left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing - to the Beijing Olympics, calling 2008 extraordinary and unusual. In the Philippines, President Arroyo looked toward the future. "I pray for greater peace and stability," Arroyo said. "I hope that we can all work together as a global community to weather these storms."