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Much of Asia expects birth jump in Year of Dragon


Taiwan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, but you wouldn't know that from visiting the obstetrics department at Taiwan Adventist Hospital. The hallways were abuzz this week with dozens of women lined up for ultrasound checks and other appointments with obstetricians.

It's not just a baby boom. It's a dragon baby boom.

The Year of the Dragon begins Monday, and the Chinese believe that babies born in this iteration of the 12-year Zodiac cycle are gifted with prodigious quantities of luck and strength. In ancient times the dragon was a symbol reserved for the Chinese emperor, and it is considered to be an extremely auspicious sign.

``We haven't had a scene like this in years,'' said hospital official Hung Tzu-chu.

A second child had not been in the plans for Austin Tseng, a 32-year-old office worker, but she said at the hospital in downtown Tapei that she is eagerly awaiting the birth.

``I had thought one child was enough, but then comes the Year of the Dragon and I'm happy to have another one,'' Tseng said after an ultrasound check on her 20-week-old fetus.

Officials expect a baby boom not only in China and Taiwan, but in other Asian countries and territories that observe the New Year festival, including Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Macau.

Most have extremely low birth rates, reflecting a preference among young couples in these prosperous or rapidly developing societies to choose quality of life and career advancement over the responsibilities of child rearing.

But this Year of the Dragon looks to be breaking the mold. A poll in Hong Kong showed that 70 percent of couples there wanted children born under the dragon sign, while South Korea, Vietnam and China all report similar enthusiasm about dragon-year childbearing.

In Taiwan, Year of the Dragon childbearing fever is in full swing, with local banks selling silver and gold coins engraved with the dragon symbol. Bank officials believe that many are buying them for their own yet-to-be born dragon year babies or for those of expecting friends and relatives.

In the past, ``many women wanted to keep their quality of life and thought child-rearing was too much of a burden to bear,'' said Wu Mei-ying, an interior ministry official charged with child care. ``But with people all around them talking about bearing dragon sons and daughters, they are suddenly caught up in the baby craze.''

The Year of the Dragon comes as a godsend for Taiwanese officials, who for the past decade have been trying to increase the island's low fertility rate: less than one child for every Taiwanese woman of childbearing age in 2010. In the 1950s, when Taiwan was a primarily agricultural society, women gave birth to an average of seven children.

The Year of the Dragon has long proved to be an impetus for births. In 2000, the last dragon year, the rate increased to 1.7 children per Taiwanese woman of childbearing age from 1.5 the previous year.

Taiwan has tried to encourage families with cash incentives that while well intentioned, appear to do little to dent the cost of education and other child rearing outlays. Besides a $100 monthly child care stipend, a Taiwanese woman can receive $330 from the government for delivering her first baby, double that for the second and triple for the third.

Interior Minister Chiang Yi-hua thinks that government encouragement can help boost the birthrate to 1.2 babies per fertile woman not only in the Year of the Dragon, but well beyond.

Wu, the interior ministry official, shares that view, noting that last year, the number of Taiwanese marriages shot up 19 percent, apparently paced by the belief that the 100th anniversary of the Republic of China - Taiwan's official name - was a favorable omen for long lasting and happy marriages.

``Coming on the heel of the centenary, the Year of the Dragon may encourage newlyweds to have babies soon,'' she said.

Chu Hong-min, a 30-year-old accountant, is five months pregnant and eagerly awaiting a dragon daughter to keep her 2-year-old son company.

But she also worries the incipient baby boom means her yet-to-be-born daughter will face tougher competition than usual.

``Many of my friends and colleagues are either expecting or plan to get pregnant this year,'' she said. ``We really have to try harder to make the children do well at school.''