TAIPEI — Taiwan is ringing in the Year of the Ox with a mix of frenzy and gloom.
Gloom, because the island's economy has taken a beating amid the global economic downturn. Frenzy, because two pandas — goodwill gifts from arch-rival China — were presented for public viewing in Taipei Monday, sparking an acute case of "panda fever."
With business bad, many Taiwanese firms are laying off staff or cutting back hours. Digitimes reported last week that Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company — the world's largest contract producer of chips — may lay off 1,000 people this year, or 5 percent of its workforce.
Unemployment reached a five-year high of 5.03 percent last month. And most here expect things to get worse before they get better.
Still, the country has tried to forget its woes in the past few days and focus on something more important: pandas. Specifically, "hen ke ai de" (very cute) pandas, as the news anchors say.
TV stations ran relentless panda coverage, including tips on best times to visit the pandas (in the morning, when they're most lively) and complaints from visitors on the strict limits on their panda-peeping time (10 minutes at most).
Vendors tried to profit from the pandas with all manner of hats, stuffed and mechanical crawling bears, scarves, cell-phone holders, balloons, and even a "panda meal" (eggs, soup, broccoli, a bun and drink — with a stalk of bamboo on the side).
Meanwhile, the nation went through the motions of Lunar New Year, though with less gusto than in better times. "Usually, people travel abroad during the holiday," said Pierre Cheng, 24, at the Taipei pizza place where he works. "But this year, since the economy isn't good, many people are only traveling inside Taiwan."
The Year of the Ox, the second year in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac, began with the new moon Monday. The new year's celebration continues through the full moon on Feb. 9, which is the Lantern Festival.
Nowadays, Taiwanese observance of the holiday varies from family to family. Some traditions have faded with the island's dramatic economic development. Annual per capita income here has risen from $300 in 1968 to $16,590 last year. But many of the old ways persist.
One stubborn tradition is holiday visits. Married women spend Lunar New Year's Eve, and sometimes New Year's Day, at their husband's parents' home, only visiting their own parents on the second day of the holiday.
Take Cheng the pizza-seller's family. He and two of his sisters joined their parents to pray to the ancestors and the gods at about 1 a.m. on three successive nights. But his second sister, who is married, spent the holiday with her husband's family in Taichung, in central Taiwan.
Meanwhile, Taiwan media focused on celebrity billionaire Terry Guo, the founder and chairman of Hon Hai, the world's largest contract electronics manufacturer. On Tuesday, he and his new, young wife, both clad in "auspicious" red, visited her family's home in central Taiwan. They dutifully handed out "red envelopes" containing money to her relatives, and even to TV reporters covering the celebrity couple.
Some holiday traditions have been tweaked for the times. At Taipei's Longshan (Dragon Mountain) Temple, in one of the city's oldest districts, the temple website is now displayed on an electronic ticker running above the entrance.
The temple was thronged with Taiwanese coming to improve their luck. They bowed to the gods with incense sticks, left them food, drink and other goodies, and burned paper funny money. Taiwan families also "bai-bai" (pray) at family altars at about midnight New Year's Eve or other times, to ancestors and the "Tudi Gong" (the local "Land God," akin to a borough chief in the bureaucratic order of Heaven).
At Longshan Temple, visitors passed under an Ox lamp, rubbing its underside and a nearby ancient Chinese coin for good luck.
Outside the temple, Dennis Cheng, 43, watched the crowds with his 6-year-old son, Jason. He said when he was young, Lunar New Year was a much bigger deal. "Before, our economy wasn't developed, so this holiday was more important. Now, because we're wealthier the atmosphere is different — it's not as special."
Taiwan families used to live three generations under a roof, making for an especially noisy, festive holiday environment. With the rise of the nuclear family, new year's celebrations are much tamer. Cheng said he used to celebrate with 12 or 13 family members when he was young. Now they're "all divided up. It's hard to get us all together."
He said young people are already abandoning old ways, and admitted even he didn't know how to perform some of the rituals anymore.
"It's not good," said Cheng. "Little by little, our traditions are disappearing."