The transformation of Chingay over the years

5 02 2013

The Chingay Parade in Singapore as we know it today had its beginnings in the wake of the total ban on firecrackers which once were a must-have at any Chinese New Year celebration.

That was back in 1973 – the parade was a relatively simple one which had been put together by the People’s Association and the Singapore National Pugilistic Federation, and it saw a procession of lion dancers, giant flag bearers, dragon dancers, stilt walkers, clowns and juggling acts down a 3 kilometre route from old Victoria School to Outram Park.

Being very much connected with Chinese New Year, it was a Chinese-centric procession and passed through some of the streets of Chinatown. The first procession was a resounding success, prompting the decision to make it an annual affair and the four decades of it, saw a transformation that had it move into the housing estates (starting with Toa Payoh in its second year), before it was moved to Orchard Road in 1985.

In that time, the parade also took on first a multi-cultural flavour and then an international flavour – moving from being a street parade not just for the man on the street but also for visitors to the island.

The carnival -like street parade Chingay is today. A less than traditional looking stilt-walker seen during the rehearsal for Chingay 2013.

The carnival -like street parade Chingay is today. A less than traditional looking stilt-walker seen during the rehearsal for Chingay 2013.

Stilt walkers from a Chinagy Parade in the 1980s seen along Orchard Road.

More traditional stilt-walkers from a Chingay Parade in the 1980s seen along Orchard Road.

The origins of Chingay were actually not in the carnival-like street parade that we are treated to today.

Chingay in its original form was what had been described as a Hokkien Chinese tradition, held in conjunction with religious festivals with a parade of deities. It is this form that it the celebrations of Chingay across the causeway still take. One example of this takes place in Johor Bahru on the 21st day of the Chinese New Year. The parades were held in Singapore as far back as in the 1880s, and saw the participation not just by the Hokkiens, but also by members of the main Chinese dialect groups.

The annual event has over the years taken on a multi-cultural and more international appearance.

The annual event has over the years taken on a multi-cultural and more international appearance.

The Japanese community  in Singapore has been well represented over the years.

The Japanese community in Singapore has been well represented over the years.

A Straits Times report of 1 February 1902 gives us an idea of the Chingays of the early days. It describes the parade as “being accompanied by all the usual banners, flags, toms toms, bands, magnificently and grotesquely made out individuals, and figures”.

The report further describes the parade: “barbaric splendour was manifested to extravagance and thousands of spectators flocked to all points to witness it. Numbers of pretty Chinese girls brilliantly and richly dressed sat on perches ten feet high, surrounded by flowers, and borne on the shoulders of bearers”.

The early parades in its more recent form would typically feature traditional performers such as flag bearers.

The early parades would typically feature traditional performers such as flag bearers.

Chingay in 1985 seen passing Peranakan Place.

Chingay in 1985 seen passing Peranakan Place along Orchard Road.

Parades in their original form were ones, which perhaps were an expression of identity and on which no expense was spared, were discontinued after December 1906. That was when at a meeting of the Hokkien clan, it was decided that the raising of public funds would better serve the promotion of children’s education instead.

The colourful celebration that is today's Chingay.

The colourful celebration that is today’s Chingay.

Chingay these days has perhaps come a full circle – at least in the sense of the extravagance.

Each parade is now one to look forward to and involves preparations that begin as early as some fifteen months ahead and are no longer the spontaneous street celebration it once had been. Many rehearsals are required so that the delivery is made “perfect” and what can be seen to be more of a staged performance – much like our National Day Parades.

For photographs of a preview of Chingay 2013 – please visit my previous post on Chingay 2013.

Stilt-walkers resting along the Orchard Road route in 1985.

Stilt-walkers resting along the Orchard Road route in 1985.


Some highlights of Chingay 2013:

  • Grandest Cultural Opening – 文天祥之“正气歌” Song of Righteousness by renowned Wen Tian Xiang, Song Dynasty (Cultural collaboration between artistes from Singapore and Fuzhou), with Chingay Taichi Sword Showcase
  • World’s Biggest Peach Blossoms, “桃夭” Performance
  • First-Ever Combined Chinese Opera Performance of Lady Generals of The Yang “杨门女将” jointly presented by Teochew, Hokkien and Cantonese Opera Groups in Singapore
  • Programme will involve at least 5,000 students and Singaporeans to write calligraphy based on the poem “Song of Righteousness” 五言诗:正气歌








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