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Year of Ram welcomed with pop of firecrackers

Downtown Flushing burst into a melee of sound Saturday as the borough welcomed the start of the Year of the Ram with the pop of firecrackers and the tromping of feet.

Rapid bursts of light danced above the long aluminum-covered strip of firecrackers that ran along the center of Main Street, releasing a thin veil of smoke into the air as they warded off evil for the new year.

"I thought it was wonderful - it made everything so much better, starting off the New Year with a bang," said Miranda Chung, 21, of Elmhurst as she peered over a police barricade on the edge of Main Street, the bright red hue of her coat symbolizing good luck in the Chinese tradition.

The Lunar New Year Parade marked the first day of the year 4701 on the Chinese calendar, the Year of the Ram, and the start of the year 4336 for Koreans.

The celebration, first introduced to the streets of Flushing in 1996, has evolved into one of the largest events in the borough. Tens of thousands of spectators lined the road for its latest incarnation, which began on Main Street and snaked its way along Roosevelt Avenue to Union Street and Northern Boulevard.

But the firecrackers were something new, at least for this parade. Mayor Rudy Giuliani had banned them from Lunar New Year celebrations in 1997, only a year after the Flushing event's inception. Mayor Michael Bloomberg reversed that order this year to permit professional pyrotechnic displays, and the 2003 Lunar New Year Parade Committee only received final city approval Friday, said its chairman, Fred Fu.

Jimmy Li, 53, of Flushing compared a Lunar New Year without firecrackers to a birthday cake without candles.

"It's all part of the cultural tradition of Chinese New Year," he said while watching the parade go by. "When we didn't have it, we were missing it."

For some of the younger spectators, the ban had been in place for so long that the burst of sound and light came as a surprise.

"It was too loud," said Christine Chen, 6, of Flushing.

Benjamin Lin, 8, of Elmhurst, was impressed with the view. "I could see a lot of fire," he said.

But his sister Michelle, 9, was not quite as satisfied.

"I couldn't see a thing!" she complained.

Although the parade was exclusively a Chinese event in its first year, it expanded to include Koreans in 1999 and now embraces the vast diversity of Queens. Among the marchers - trotters, really - was a group of horse-riding rope handlers from the Federation of Black Cowboys.

Marchers with the Falun Gong, an exercise-based sect that has been banned in China, showed off an elegant display of dances and elaborate costumes. Their participation in the parade sparked a lively debate among members of the parade committee, some of whom wanted the group banned because they said it repeatedly broke the rules by turning the parade into a political event.

But the Falun Gong was allowed to march in a last-minute decision. Aside from the dazzling bright yellow hue of their costumes, they blended in perfectly despite the controversy.

Martial arts schools from across the region showed off their might with demonstrations of athletic bravado featuring dozens of students. Esther Hong, 13, of Long Island chopped through a half-dozen wooden blocks by kicking her legs and swinging her arms.

It wasn't as easy as it looked.

"That hurt like hell!" she said while massaging her hand once she retreated to the side.

But the perennial favorite was Il Doo Yum, the fire eater.

The martial arts master took a swig of a pink liquid, leaned his head back and then spit a cloud of mist into a burning stick he held above his mouth, creating an enormous burst of fire.

The crowd went wild. But the identity of his magical potion was a mystery even to his own students.

"It's just something that's flammable," said James Chung, 14, of Woodside, an assistant who carried the pink drink. "He doesn't tell us. It's his secret."

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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