Sun, Dec 28, 2003 - Page 5 News List

New faces top list of this year's stars of Asia

OVERNIGHT FAME China's first astronaut, Japan's aging heroes and Australia's rough-and-ready politicians all enjoyed their 15 minutes in the international spotlight

AFP , HONG KONG

From the fighter pilot who became a national hero to millions of Chinese to the aging Filipino matinee star turning his hand to politics and the elderly Japanese man who climbed Mount Everest, a slew of previously unknown personalities have charmed Asia this year.

Of those who got Asia talking in 2003, few were probably feted by as many as Yang Liwei (楊利偉), China's first man in space.

The 38-year-old fighter pilot was officially given the title of "Space Hero" by military chief Jiang Zemin (江澤民) after his successful orbit of Earth in the Shenzhou V spacecraft in October.

But even without the title, Yang became a figure of worship to millions of Chinese when he emerged from his capsule after touching down in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.

Although previously unknown, Yang is now a household name not only in China but around the region. The father of one was welcomed by hundreds of fans when he toured China, Hong Kong and Macau shortly after the mission and his image has been used on merchandise to such an extent that Chinese space officials have had to step in to stop people cashing in on his fame.

They have registered his portrait, name and signature and threatened legal action against anyone who makes money out of him.

Yang's Chinese rival in celebrity status is probably Yao Ming (姚明), the lofty basketballer who takes to the court for the Houston Rockets. The seven and a half foot giant from Shanghai has had a dream year, averaging 15.5 points and 8.4 rebounds a game for the Rockets, and bringing in huge fan interest from Asia.

In the political arena, two unlikely candidates have emerged in the region as possible leaders for their countries.

In the Philippines, the man known as the king of movies Fernando Poe has declared himself a candidate for next year's presidential polls while in Australia, a politician who once broke a taxi-driver's arm during a scuffle, is seen as the Labor Party's greatest chance of ruling the country in years.

Poe's move from matinee idol to politician is all the more remarkable given his lack of education and experience. Yet the 64-year-old high school drop-out, considered the John Wayne of the Philippines, has headed of incumbent Gloria Arroyo in recent surveys.

In Australia, Mark Latham, viewed as a working-class intellectual, has emerged as the new generation of Labor leader required to oust the conservative government led by Prime Minister John Howard.

But the 42-year-old has some rough edges -- he has previously described US President George W. Bush as the "most incompetent and dangerous" American president of modern times.

The SARS virus which swept through Asia early in the year also brought several unheralded personalities to the fore. First among them was Carlo Urbani, the man who alerted the world to the mysterious pneumonia-like illness.

As the World Health Organization's top infectious disease specialist in Vietnam, Urbani led the battle against severe acute respiratory syndrome from the frontline but died after contracting the illness.

"Had it not been for his recognition that the outbreak of the virus was something out of the ordinary, many more would have fallen victim to SARS," said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in an April 8 tribute.

"It was the cruellest of ironies that he lost his own life to SARS while seeking to safeguard others from the disease."

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