- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2004

HONG KONG — From the fighter pilot who became a national hero to millions of Chinese to the aging Philippine matinee star who turned his hand to politics to 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 probably were feted by as many as Yang Liwei, China’s first man in space.

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

But even without the title, Mr. 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.

Never heard of before, the father of one was welcomed by hundreds of fans when he toured China, Hong Kong and Macau shortly after the mission, and Mr. Yang’s 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 on him.

Mr. Yang’s Chinese rival in celebrity status is probably Yao Ming, the lofty basketball player who takes to the court for the Houston Rockets. The 7-foot-6-inch young man from Shanghai has had a dream year, averaging 15.5 points and 8.4 rebounds a game for his team and bringing in huge fan interest from Asia.

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

In the Philippines, the man known as the “king of movies,” Fernando Poe, has declared himself a candidate for the presidential elections next year. And in Australia, a politician who once broke a taxi driver’s arm during a scuffle over a fare is seen as the Labor Party’s greatest chance of ruling the country in years.

Mr. Poe’s move from matinee idol to politician is all the more remarkable because of his lack of education and political experience. Yet, the 64-year-old high-school dropout, considered the John Wayne of the Philippines, has headed off incumbent Gloria Macapagal 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 Mr. Latham, 42, has some rough edges — he has described President Bush as the “most incompetent and dangerous” U.S. 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 pneumonialike illness.

As the World Health Organization’s top infectious-disease specialist in Vietnam, Mr. Urbani led the battle against severe acute respiratory syndrome from the front line 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 U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in an April 8 tribute.

“It was the cruelest of ironies that he lost his own life to SARS, while seeking to safeguard others from the disease.”

Asia also became more familiar with Hong Kong’s hospital authorities during the outbreak: Then Health Director Margaret Chan became the much-respected public face during the SARS epidemic with her daily briefings.

Hospital Authority Chief Executive Officer William Ho was less fortunate. After initially leading journalists and politicians on tours of SARS-stricken hospitals, Mr. Ho contracted the potentially fatal disease. He since has made a full recovery and says he is ready in the event the virus returns this winter.

Another Asian to gain 15 minutes of fame in the field of medicine this year was Singaporean neurosurgeon Keith Goh, who led a medical team in a historic but tragic attempt to separate conjoined adult Iranian twin sisters Laden and Laleh Bijani in July. Both women died during surgery, but Mr. Goh since has said that he would perform the operation again if asked.

In Japan, Mitoyo Kawate was recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest living person. Less than two weeks after taking the title, Mrs. Kawate succumbed to pneumonia at age 114.

Mrs. Kawate had survived the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and worked on a farm until she was 99 before spending the last decade of her life in a nursing home.

She is joined by fellow Japanese senior Yuichiro Miura as one the region’s most notable personalities of the year. Mr. Miura, a skier and mountaineer, on May 22 became the oldest person to scale Everest, the world’s highest mountain, at the age of 70 years and 222 days.

“What was really a dream came closer, step by step, and I was finally able to stand on Everest at the highest point in the world,” he said.

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