The Chingay Parade: What does it mean to Singaporeans?

By Nicholas Yeo

The Chingay Parade is the only official parade held in Singapore during the second week of the Lunar New Year, and is one of the few Singaporean traditions that I cannot quite comprehend the purpose behind its existence.

Often I find it to be nothing more than a lower scaled replica of the National Day Parade that appeals solely to the true heartlanders of the heartlands.

Perhaps it is because my comparisons are street parties like Mardi Gras, or when any South American Nation wins the World Cup. Chingay for me is way too subdued and traditional, perhaps even politically hilarious at time.

But as with the spirit of the Lion Raw, I do think everything deserves a chance to justify itself, even the Chingay parade.

THE HISTORY

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Traditional Chinese performances at the 1973 Chingay Parade. Picture for online viewing only, courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore

The word Chingay was coined from the Hokkien term ‘the art of costume and masquerade’ and has its history trailed back to 1880 where ‘a celebration to welcome spring’ took place in Georgetown, Penang.

Over the years it went through many changes but still retained its ideals of being a procession that expressed the communal unity of a village and state. The Chingay Parade in Penang toned down after World War II but made a comeback when it landed in Johore in the 1960’s, as every dialect group competed to see who could come up with the fanciest floats around the state.

At this point of time Chingay was still a largely Chinese based procession involving lion and dragon dances, complete with the traditional banging of gongs, cymbals and drums.

IN SINGAPORE

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A fire breaks out as a result of firecrackers during the Chap Goh Meh Fifteenth Day of the Lunar New Year. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore

Before Chingay, firecrackers were the main source of entertainment and celebration to commemorate the Lunar New Year, but after causing countless deaths and gruesome injuries, it was officially banned in 1972.

Seeing a need to provide an avenue for continued celebrations, then PM Lee Kuan Yew tasked former Deputy Chairman of the People’s Association Jek Yung Thong to organise a pugilistic processions in line with Penang’s Chingay Festival and mount a massive procession display for Chinese New Year.

The People’s Association and the Singapore National Pugilistic Federation came together to organise the first parade back in 1973 that was solely based on Chinese traditions and had 2,000 participants in total.

The Malay and Indian communities only joined in during 1977, and this was followed by the Japanese being the first international participants in 1987.

Over the years the Chingay has been travelling all over the island, from Orchard Road to the Civic District and this year it will be located at the F1 Pit Building on Feb 3 & 4.

WHAT IT MEANS TO SINGAPOREANS?

I have had a couple of friends who have been part of the Chingay procession and found it amazing that they dedicated their time through countless weekend rehearsals all just to be one of the many participants in this event.

In an age where we expect tangible rewards with every effort we put forth, it is good to see that so many people are still willing to participate in what can be a time consuming and back breaking performance.

Chingay also becomes one of the few National and traditional occasions where unions, pugilistic clans, and performance groups get to display their talents and unity in a procession that has grown from one of celebrating the Lunar New Year , to one celebrating the ethnic and cultural diversity of Singapore. And although many may beg to disagree, it does allow many of our ‘foreign talents’ a more pragmatic and meaningful way to integrate into our society.

Maybe this year on Feb 3 & 4 I will at least tune in to watch the parade while munching away at the last few pieces of ‘bak kwa’ stashed at home.

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A more pragmatic integration into society

One comment

  1. Chingay sounds more like “dear family” than “art of costume and masquerade” in Hokkien …

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