Guangzhou yesterday kicked off the 16th Asian Games with world-record-setting fireworks and a dazzling waterfront spectacle in the middle of its landmark Pearl River - and tens of thousands of eager onlookers broke into condoned-off areas to catch a glimpse of the show.
Two years after China wowed the world with the Olympic Games opening ceremony in Beijing, Guangzhou highlighted Guangdong's heritage as a coastal province at its ceremony on Haixinsha Island.
A flotilla of 45 boats adorned with LED lights ferried thousands of athletes down the Pearl River to the tiny island, which was configured like a sailboat for the 41/2-hour opening festivities designed by Chen Weiya , the deputy to famed director Zhang Yimou for the Beijing Olympics ceremony.
The stadium, which can accommodate 27,000 people, served as the cabin while eight giant screens doubled as sails as a backdrop.
The hosts spoke in both Cantonese and Putonghua - a campaign to protect Cantonese has unnerved the authorities weeks before the games.
Lang Lang performed on a white grand piano and actress Zhang Ziyi sang as synchronised swimmers performed.
Premier Wen Jiabao was joined by dignitaries including Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen led the Hong Kong delegation.
While many were worried about the response of the Chinese audience as the Japanese delegation arrived, it was greeted calmly with some friendly applause.
The most expensive tickets to the extravagant show cost 6,800 yuan (HK$7,900). But it was a spectacle meant for television - major roads were condoned off and most of the 10 million residents in the affluent southern city had been advised to watch the broadcast at home.
However, chaos erupted near the river banks as enthusiastic onlookers broke into the condoned-off areas to watch the fireworks that were hailed as setting a new record in Guinness World Records.
Residents of a complex overlooking the ceremony were ordered to leave their homes and watch TV downstairs to reduce the safety risks, but they were told to keep their lights on to make the city look bright.
The ceremony attracted plenty of compliments online last night, with many mainland internet users impressed by the creative presentation.
An editor at Guangzhou's Southern Weekend newspaper wrote on Sina.com that he enjoyed the show.
'I do agree that the government spent too much on the Asian Games, but can we deny the artistic value of the show by just citing the dark side of the politics?' he asked.
The 16th Asian Games have set many records. A total of 9,704 athletes from 45 countries will be competing in 42 events, outnumbering the 9,520 athletes at the 15th Asian Games, held in Doha. Six years of urban beautification and preparations for the games cost Guangzhou at least 122.6 billion yuan, with many hidden costs yet to be calculated.