| Updated at: 1238 PST, Saturday, November 13, 2010|
GUANGZHOU: Light beams, fireworks and water jets exploded from the banks of the Pearl River as China marked the opening of the 16th Asian Games on Friday, two years after dazzling the world with a gala opener to the Beijing Olympics.
Unlike the land-bound festivities at the Bird’s Nest stadium that featured thousands of performers moving in coordination in 2008, Asian Games organisers paid tribute to coastal Guangdong province’s seafaring heritage.
The venue on tiny Haixinsha island was configured like a sailboat for the 4 1/2-hour opening festivities designed by Chen Weiya — famed Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s deputy when he crafted the Beijing ceremony. The 27,000-capacity stadium stood as the cabin; four towering pillars in front of it unfurled eight video screens that doubled as sails.
The scale of the preparations for the ceremony drew parallels with the Beijing Olympics opener in 2008, which was highly acclaimed, but Guangzhou officials were eager to set the two apart.
“It’s like one is coffee and the other is tea,” Chen Weiya said.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao attended, joined by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and other dignitaries from the region.
The extravaganza heralds the most ambitious Asiad so far with some 10,000 athletes from 45 countries and territories vying for gold in 42 sports.
The Games run until November 27, with hosts China heavily favoured to top the medal table, and South Korea and Japan battling for second place.
“Remember, you are part of history right here, right now,” Olympic Council of Asia president Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah told the athletes at the opening ceremony.
“Please show us your best performance, and show us the spirit of sportsmanship, fair play, friendship and resopect to your fellow athletes and officials.”
The ceremony kicked off with a small boy floating down from the sky on a leaf-like carriage lit in green. He poured water from a bottle, setting off giant fountains that sprayed in arcs across the stage. Four dozen water goddesses seemed to walk across the water, followed by a dozen fairies rising out of pools in the stage floor.
Performers flapping large pieces of red cloth scrambled across the stage to create the image of petals dropping on water. Other actors entered in a large sampan-like vessel, recreating a journey in rough seas, with the would-be sailors swaying on ropes and ladders amid waters represented by large flags waved by hundreds of dancers.
Classical pianist Lang Lang performed on a white grand and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” actress Zhang Ziyi sang as synchronised swimmers danced and water sprouted before them.
Performers on jet skis zoomed into the stadium and performed tricks.
In a playful segment, dozens of dancers attached to wires seemed to run across cityscapes flashed across the video screens, climbed mountains and formed formations to look like eagles flying through the sky.
In a nod to Chinese hurdling superstar Liu Xiang, who is recovering from an Achilles’ tendon injury that forced him to withdraw from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the dancers formed hurdles across a track while one jumped smoothly over them.
In keeping with the night’s nautical theme, instead of walking into the stadium, the athletes arrived on boats that ferried them down the Pearl River. Brightly illuminated in bulbs of different colors, the 45 boats were decorated with Asian landmarks — including Japan’s Mount Fuji, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, Jordan’s Petra and India’s Taj Mahal. China was represented by the Temple of Heaven, the Bird’s Nest and the country’s pavilion from the recently concluded Shanghai World Expo.
During the parade, rivals North and South Korea failed to march under a reunification flag while an otherwise boisterous Chinese crowd hushed momentarily when the Japanese delegation arrived on stage in a possible sign of recent bilateral tensions.
The huge scale of the event has posed a logistical dilemma for the Chinese organisers.
Except for members of the public who won a lottery for tickets to the show, most residents of this wealthy city of 10 million watched it on TV — even though many could have enjoyed a picturesque view of the proceedings from either side of the river.
Officials locked down areas near the stadium, ordering residents within a half-mile radius to leave their homes for the night — apparently to eliminate the threat of sniper fire. However, they were asked to leave their lights on to help maintain a glittering skyline backdrop. Tickets to the ceremony went for as much as $1,025.
“It’s a shame of course,” said an elderly lady surnamed Chen near a 2.5 metre-high electrified fence. “We can’t get closer to the river to enjoy the ceremony tonight.”
As with the Beijing Olympics, organisers have been desperate to depict the Asian Games as a symbol of harmony welcomed by residents of the booming metropolis.
Flag sellers on the streets and a small army of volunteers clad in bright tracksuits reinforced the message, speaking gushingly of the Games and their excitement for the opening.
Security is a major focus, with more than 100,000 police officers on duty to keep it safe, along with hundreds of thousands of security guards and volunteers.
“As the Guangzhou Asian Games will have the most ever athletes, officials and reporters in the history of the Asian Games, the security work has been a great challenge,” a statement from the Games security panel said.
“The security panel has adopted effective and necessary measures to ensure a safe Games. We have done our best to provide a safe and favorable environment for athletes, coaches, officials and audiences.”