Chingay. A name that pops up during the early periods of the new year, before quietly dissipating away from the public’s collective consciousness until the next year — It’s a cycle that many Singaporeans go through.
We may know Chingay, but do we actually know Chingay? Many will say that it is a parade. Yes, of course it is, that much is obvious. But what is it actually meant to be? This is something that I suspect many Singaporean may struggle to come up with an answer.
Admittedly, I am someone who has not seen nor cared about it in years gone past, but when I was given the task to research the eponymous annual parade, I took it with both hands; not just because of a desire to inform people, but also perhaps to ignite a semblance of interest about it in myself.
To that end, here are my findings on Chingay:
Its origins lie in China
As with many Chinese traditions seen in Singapore, the origins of Chingay can be traced all the way back to mainland China. Processions were held back in the 19th century which featured children dressed up in costumes and carried around on platforms.
It spread over from Malaysia
The practice of Chingay itself did not come directly to Singapore from China but Malaysia. It is widely believed that Chinese immigrants that arrived in Penang are the ones to have brought the practice, subsequently becoming famous for its extravagant processions.
Chingay is older than you think
Though the first official Chingay parade was held back in February 1973, the practice itself had been going on for over a century, with mentions about it in the local press dating back to April 1840. Teochews participated in these processions along with the Cantonese, Hylam and Keh contingents as they passed through the areas of Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar.
It was abolished because it was too expensive
The Hokkiens also held their own Chingay processions back in the late 1890s and early 1900s, though it was much more infrequent. However, it soon became apparent that too much money was being spent to make it lavish for an irregular parade.
A large meeting was held by clan leader Lee Cheng Yan — a merchant and one of the founders of the Straits Steamship Company that is now part of Keppel Corporation — that involved the Hokkien Chinese community where Chingay processions were denounced to be financially extravagant and culturally backward. A unanimous decision then sealed its fate, and the practice was abolished.
Fireworks brought Chingay back
Fireworks used to be an active part of Singapore’s Chinese New Year history. However, injuries and deaths from firework accidents led to a new law passed in June 1972 that banned the use of fireworks.
This decision, of course, led to public displeasure. To appease the people, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew suggested using Chingay parades as an alternative. And so, the first official Chingay parade was held on 4 February 1973 and involved 2,000 performers. Its success has since enabled the procession to be an annual event.
It has evolved to be more than just about the Chinese
Originally, Chingay parades were all about coinciding with the birthdays of Chinese deities. Now it has gone beyond the Lunar New Year celebrations and includes many other communities in Singapore.
Besides the Chinese, contingents from the Malay, Indian and even Russian communities can be seen in recent parade celebrations. Beyond race and ethnic distinctions, institutions like National Technical University (NTU) and the Singapore Scouts also make regular appearances to perform during the procession.
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Photos by Darren Chiong of the DANAMIC team.