Enter the dragons: A baby boom for Chinese across Asia
When Alicia Loo got pregnant 12 years ago, her husband's family was thrilled - the baby would be born in the year of the dragon.
Like most Chinese around the world, they believed that this was auspicious.
The dragon, the only mythical creature among the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, is regarded as a symbol of might and intelligence. In ancient China, the dragon was associated with the emperor.
Boys born in the year of the dragon, especially, are said to be destined to be successful and wealthy.
The next year of the dragon begins on 23 January, on the first day of the Chinese New Year, and lots of dragon babies are set to make an entrance.
- Chinese new year falls on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar
- There are 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac: the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the ram, the monkey, the rooster, the dog and the pig
- Exact origins of the Chinese zodiac are unknown, but common folklore has it that these are the 12 animals to reach Heaven in a race
In previous dragon years, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and countries such as Singapore with a strong Chinese diaspora have experienced baby booms. In 2000, Hong Kong saw a more than 5% rise in the number of births, according to official data.
Last month, state news agency Xinhua reported that China was anticipating a 5% increase in the number of babies this year.
Makers of baby products and companies offering pre-natal and infant care services are fired up by the business prospects.
A Bloomberg report, citing Euromonitor International, estimated that sales of nappies in China will grow about 17% to 28.4 billion yuan ($4.5bn, £2.9bn) this year.Dragons' school race
Paying for nappies, however, is not the biggest worry for parents of dragon babies.
''It might affect this birth cohort when they get into school, go to the labour market because more people means more competition,'' said Dr Tong Yuying, assistant professor, department of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Schools may increase their capacity, but it still means more children battling it out in national exams to get into top schools.
''It was a blessing, and not so, at the same time,'' said Alicia Loo, whose son Timothy, born in Singapore, was the fourth dragon in the Malaysian Chinese family.
Timothy has to sit for the national Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) in Singapore this year. His results will determine which secondary school he attends.
''He is not stressed at all, being his usual dragon self,'' said the dance teacher and mother of three. ''But I am worried about secondary school.''
The race for school among bumper dragon cohorts is similar in Taiwan, if not more pronounced.
''Competition is definitely more intense for kids born in this year,'' said Dr Chen Shee-Uan, director of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at the National Taiwan University Hospital.
He believes there will be an increase of 20 to 30% this year in the number of babies delivered at the hospital. He is also expecting the same spike for in vitro fertilisation treatments at his clinic.
In fact, he added, this has already started happening in the last three months, as couples tried to get a head start in the process.
''The dragon is really a special year,'' he said.Population issues
This would be a boon to Taiwan, which had the lowest fertility rate in the world last year. The average number of children born to women was 0.9, a drop from 1.03 the previous year. Similarly, Singapore also saw its lowest fertility rate in 2010 with 1.15 babies per female.
- Bruce Lee: (born 27 November 1940) The American Chinese martial arts instructor and movie star was the founder of the Jeet Kune Do form of martial arts. His Chinese screen name means ''little dragon'' but he is arguably one of the best known dragons in the world. He died shortly after filming Enter the Dragon (1973).
- Deng Xiaoping: (born 22 August 1904) China's 'paramount leader' from 1978 to 1992, the late statesman was the reformer whose legacy was leading the country towards a market economy. Several other former Chinese leaders, such as Zhu Rongji and Li Peng, were also born in a dragon year.
- Maggie Cheung: (born 20 September 1964) The Hong Kong born multilingual actress and former beauty queen is the first Asian actress to win an award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival for her role in Clean (2004).
- Lee Hsien Loong: (born 10 February 1952) Singapore's PM since 2004 and the eldest son of founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, he has a first-class degree in mathematics from Cambridge University. His Chinese name means 'the dragon emerges'.
In China - the world's most populous nation, with 1.3 billion people - though, it would be a different story.
''One downfall of the dragon baby boom is that this will put a lot of pressure on hospitals, kindergartens and schools in China,'' said Dr Zhang Yanxia, a visiting research fellow at the East Asian Institute in Singapore.
Mainland Chinese mothers already go to Hong Kong to deliver their babies to circumvent the one-child policy, and for rights of abode and education for their child.
Last weekend, Hong Kong mothers with pushchairs staged a protest, amid fears of a further influx. Authorities have taken steps to limit the number of deliveries by mainlanders and foreigners in both public and private hospitals.
But the boom is not expected to last. Coming years - especially the year of the snake in 2013 - will likely see a decline in births.
''The dragon baby boom seems unlikely to have a significant impact on the total fertility rates in the long run,'' said Dr Zhang.'Best times'
Nonetheless, the baby dragons are coming, by all indications.
''When the dragon wants to do something, there will be no stopping him,'' said Master Wong, president of the Malaysian Fengshui Association. ''I should know; I'm a dragon too.''
This is the year of the Water Dragon and so it is auspicious regardless of whether one has a boy or a girl, said the international Fengshui expert.
Traditionally, it is believed that female dragons, while wise and talented, will face some difficulties in their lives, particularly in the area of romance.
The best times for babies to be born was either in May, he added, or towards the end of the year when the energy is more vibrant.
Many younger, well-educated parents, especially in Chinese communities in the West, say they do not subscribe completely to astrological beliefs.
''The younger, British-born Chinese don't mind if they have a dragon baby in the family, or not,'' said Perry Fung, a manager at the Chinese Community Centre in London.
''But the older generation will still be very happy. There is a saying in Chinese - we are the descendants of the dragon.''
In fact, the lure of the dragon is so attractive that some prospective parents from other cultures find themselves drawn in as well.
Betty Kioroglou-Poulos, a Greek American living in Boston, is excited that her first child, due in March, will be a dragon baby.
''I guess you could say I half-believe it,'' she said.
''Nothing is ever guaranteed in life, but I figured if the Chinese have been following this and have believed in this for as long as they have, maybe there is some truth in it!''