World Bids A Relieved Adieu To A Rocky Year

By: AP
By: AP

SYDNEY, Australia -- Amid the jubilation and celebration of New Year's Eve, another feeling is present for many as a decidedly rocky 2008 comes to a close: relief.

Randolph King, 63, of York, England, tried to forget his retirement fund losses as he sat on a hill overlooking Sydney Harbor, awaiting the city's annual New Year's fireworks display. "I'm looking forward to 2009 - because it can't get much worse," he said.

Facing the end of a year that saw global markets come crashing down - taking the world's morale with them - partygoers 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 first major city to ring in the new year - organizers were hoping the $4 million (6 million Australian dollar) New Year's festival would offer revelers a brief respite from the global gloom.

"There's so much misery around," fireworks director Fortunato Foti said. "If we can get people to forget all that and think just about the fireworks for 15 to 20 minutes, we will have done our job."

Armed with blankets, snacks and umbrellas to protect against the searing Australian summer sun, tens of thousands waited hours along the shores of the city's glittering harbor for the midnight fireworks extravaganza, expected to draw more than a million spectators.

Children screamed with glee as a kaleidoscopic fireworks display for youngsters erupted at 9 p.m. over the water, a prelude to the main event later in the night.

The evening's theme, "Creation," was chosen in part because 2008 was such a dreary year, said the celebration's creative director, Rhoda Roberts.

"It is about reflecting and looking at what's happened in the past and moving forward," Roberts said. "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 U.S. 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 $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 Jan. 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.

In the Philippines, President Arroyo acknowledged the struggles of 2008.

"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."

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Associated Press writers Denis Gray in Bangkok, Thailand, Dikky Sinn in Hong Kong, Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow, India, and Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo contributed to this story.

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