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June 24, 2017

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Crowds pray for luck on New Year's Day

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- President Ma Ying-jeou met with some minor protests yesterday as he handed out small gifts to visitors at a Taipei temple on the first day of Chinese New Year.

Meanwhile, across Taiwan people gathered at temples to pray for good luck in the new year.

A long line formed at Xingtian Temple with people waiting to receive a NT$1 red envelope gift from Ma, but a man demanded he release former President Chen Shui-bian from prison when it was his turn to get the gift. He was quickly whisked away by security guards.

Another woman had earlier unfurled banners protesting the rises in oil and water prices.

Addressing the crowd gathered at the temple — one of the most popular in the city — the president said he felt "sorry" about the poor economy last year. But he maintained that he believes the economy will improve this year.

Despite the minor incidents, most in attendance, including two Japanese tourists, were happy to receive the gifts from the president, with some of them having queued up twice to get two.

"The early bird gets the worm," said a woman as she described how she left her home early and became the first in line.

A mother and her daughter from Japan said they were "very lucky, very happy" to receive the red envelope.

Ma handed out 1,200 red envelopes over a period of about an hour before leaving.

The Presidential Office later issued a statement saying it respects freedom of speech but expressed regret over the protesting man's action on such a festive occasion.

Earlier at midnight, one of Taiwan's most important traditions created mayhem in temples all over the island when people surged into their local temples hoping to be the first to plant a stick of incense into giant incense burners in the hope of ensuring good luck for the whole year.

Every year, temples large and small around the country are shrouded in a dense fog of incense smoke and packed with people praying for luck in the middle of the night.

Thousands of people — including foreign tourists and reporters — packed the outdoor square of Taipei's Xingtian Temple before the clock struck 12, waiting to race to be the first to plunge their stick into the burner or simply to witness the spectacle.

"It's horrible," a person in one of the masses cried. People, stuck tightly into the crowd, moved slowly toward the incense burner, each person with several burning sticks of incense in their hand. Others complained of a lack of order as people swarmed to reach the burner.

The race, however, is not necessary, at least according to Taiwanese folklore expert Liu Huan-yueh, who pointed out that the first incense stick of the year is a personal thing and does not require being the first among thousands.

Lunar New Year is the most important festival on the Chinese calendar and many myths and legends surround the origin of the festival, including the most popular tale of the monster "Nian," which is a homophone for the word "year" in Chinese.

According to the Taiwan Folklore and Culture Research Workshop run by the Department of Chinese Literature of Providence University in Taichung, central Taiwan, "Nian," who is reputed to live in a deep mountain forest, is the reason that people in ancient China began celebrating Lunar New Year.

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