Chingay is an annual street parade held in Singapore as part of the Lunar New Year celebrations. The term “Chingay” is derived from the Hokkien Chinese term 妆艺, which means “to decorate a frame with incense and boys dressed as girls carried in processions”, according to Carstair Douglas’s 1899 Amoy (Hokkien) dictionary.1 The practice seems to have originated in China, where scattered 19th-century accounts of dressed-up children being carried on platforms in processions had been recorded, from various places like Canton and Chiqiao in Shanxi.2
It is commonly believed that 19th-century Chinese immigrants first brought the Chingay practice to Penang.3 Penang’s festivals became famous for lavish processions featuring elaborate chingays and huge flags.4 In Singapore, what appeared to be Chingay platforms were mentioned as early as 1840 in the press, though seemingly Chingay processions were reported only from the 1880s.5 These processions carried on until 1906 when clans abolished the practice of organising grand processions.6 Singapore’s modern Chingay parade began in 1973 and has evolved over the years into a multi-cultural event that includes participants of diverse ethnicities and nationalities.7
Chingay in Malaya
While it is difficult to ascertain exactly when or how chingay began in Malaya, it is believed that migrants from southern China brought the practice to the British settlement of Penang during the 19th century.8 Chingay processions were organised for religious festivals devoted to Chinese deities.9 Usually a lavish affair, the event involved the whole town and drew numerous visitors from other parts of the region.10 Processions featured the distinctive Chingay platforms, but these were mounted on carts or carriages as “floats”, rather than carried on the shoulders of men as originally practised. On each float would be elaborate paper dolls and animals depicting religious themes and historical scenes, as well as lanterns in the shape of animals or fruit.11 A three-day Chingay procession to honour Tua Pek Kong and costing more than $25,000 was mentioned in a September 1883 newspaper article, one of the earliest newspaper reports of this festival.12 By the turn of the century, Penang had become well known for its chingay processions to honour Tua Pek Kong and another popular deity, Kuan Yin (also Kwan Im), the Goddess of Mercy.13
Similar processions were also known to have taken place in other parts of Malaya. One such Chingay procession in Kuching was mentioned in an October 1928 newspaper article.14 Johor Bahru’s annual Chingay from the 18th to the 22nd of the first lunar month for the Five Gods of the Old Temple is also well known. In 2012, Prime Minister Najib Ali even announced the addition of Johor Bahru’s Chingay to Malaysia’s intangible cultural heritage list.15 The earliest report of Johor Bahru’s Chingay in the Singapore press appears to be from February 1902.16
Chingay in early Singapore
Processions to honour Chinese religious deities were apparently a regular occurrence in 19th-century Singapore. The earliest account appeared in April 1840, describing festivities in honour of the deity Ma Chor Po, the protector of seafarers. Children being carried on platforms was characteristic of a chingay, though this was not mentioned in the report.17 One of the earliest explicit reference to a Chingay procession was a brief mention in a January 1884 newspaper article, while a December 1887 article described the participation of Teochew, Cantonese, Hylam and Keh contingents in an extensive procession that took several hours to pass through the Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar areas.18 This year-end combined Chingay procession by the non-Hokkiens had become an annual event by the late 19th century, and continued into the early 20th century.19 There were also less frequent Chingay processions held by the Hokkiens; a February 1893 notice in the Daily Advertiser said the processions were “triennial”.20 Contradicting this was a 3 December 1895 Mid-day Herald article which said that the triennial Hokkien chingay had been held the day before, after a lapse of six years.21 From this confusion in newspaper reports, we can surmise that the Hokkiens held Chingays irregularly. Chingays were also part of the Chinese section of processions staged on special occasions, such as the commemoration of the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York to Singapore in 1901, and the visit of Prince Arthur of Connaught in 1906.22
On 16 December 1906, at a large meeting of Hokkien Chinese led by clan leader Lee Cheng Yan, Chingay processions were denounced as a financially extravagant and culturally backward practice. A unanimous decision was taken to abolish Chingay processions, stop public subscriptions for such events, and use the funds saved for educational purposes instead.23 The decision was confirmed soon after at another large meeting, and other clans adopted similar resolutions, thus ending the practice of the Singapore Chinese community staging Chingay processions for their own festivals.24 However, the community agreed to have chingay floats as part of the 1911 procession celebrating King George V’s coronation.25 Amusement park advertisements from the 1920s and ’30s showed that New World and Happy World staged at least three processions with chingays.26
Modern Chingay parade
In June 1972, a bill was passed banning firecrackers due to deaths and injuries from fatal explosions.27 The absence of traditional firecrackers to celebrate the Lunar New Year caused unhappiness and reduced public enthusiasm for the occasion. As an alternative, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew suggested the staging of a Chingay parade similar to those held in Penang, according to the People’s Association commemorative book on the Chingay.28
Organised by the People’s Association and National Pugilistic Federation, the first modern Chingay procession in Singapore was held on 4 February 1973 and involved about 2,000 performers.29 The procession started from Victoria School in Jalan Besar and ended at Outram Park.30 It was led by a large statue of a bull to signify the Year of the Ox. The event introduced clowns dressed in costumes with oversized heads, and also featured lion dancers, jugglers, stilt-walkers dressed in ancient Chinese costumes, and 20-foot long flags.31 It was telecast live by Radio Television Singapore.32
With its initial success, the Chingay parade became an annual event.33 In its early years, the procession was staged in different public housing estates such as Toa Payoh (1974), Marine Parade (1978) and Ang Mo Kio (1980).34 The parade moved to the Orchard Road shopping belt for the first time in 1985 and continued to be held there for 15 years. In 1990, the first night Chingay was held.35 To celebrate the millennium in 2000, the procession took a new route beginning at the former City Hall building (now part of the National Art Gallery, Singapore) and ending at the Suntec City Fountain of Wealth.36 The event was held in Chinatown for the first time in 2003.37
The parade is usually themed around the Chinese zodiac animal for the new lunar year, and features a range of other performers and floats. To usher in the Chinese Year of the Dog in 1994, for instance, the parade included a procession of about 30 dogs from the Singapore Kennel Club.38
Today, Chingay takes place on the second weekend of the Lunar New Year season, and is held over two days. Known for its carnival atmosphere, it is a multi-cultural event that involves not only the Chinese but also other ethnic groups, as well as contemporary culture. The Chingay procession in 2000, for instance, included Malay opera performance and Indian Kathakali dancers.39 This tradition of including other ethnic groups started in 1976 with Malay and Indian performances.40 However, distinctly non-Chinese elements had already been incorporated into the second Chingay in 1974, when Disney characters were included.41
Joanna HS Tan
1. Carstairs Douglas, “Chinese-English Dictionary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy,” compact disc (Original work published 1899) in Loan Words in Indonesian and Malay, Jones Russell, ed. (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2007), 104–05. (Call no. RSEA 499.22124 LOA)
2. Anglicus, “To the Editor of the Asiatic Journal,” The Asiatic Journal, 1 (June 1816): 530. (Call no. RRARE 950J; microfilm NL18001); Henrietta Harrison, “The Man Awakened from Dreams: One Man’s Life in a North China Village, 1857–1942,” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 148. (Call no. R 951.17 HAR)
3. People’s Association, Chingay, 妆艺: Singapore on Parade (Singapore: People’s Association, 2007), 22. (Call no. RSING 394.261 CHI-[CUS])
4. Choon San Wong, An Illustrated Cycle of Chinese Festivities in Malaysia and Singapore (Singapore: Jack Chia-MPH, 1987), 11. (Call no. RSING 398.33 WON)
5. “The Free Press,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 23 April 1840, 3; “Untitled,” Straits Times, 7 January 1884, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Chinese Topics in Malaya,” Straits Times, 10 December 1931, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
7. People’s Association, Chingay, 妆艺, 22.
8. People’s Association, Chingay, 妆艺, 22.
9. Tan Kim Hong, The Chinese in Penang: A Pictorial History (Penang: Areca Books, 2007), 226. (Call no. RSEA 959.51004951 TAN)
10. “Penang News,” Straits Times, 19 September 1883, 2; “Chingay Pageant,” Straits Times, 12 November 1919, 12; “The Chingay Procession,” Straits Times, 31 October 1928, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Khoo Salma Nasution and Malcolm Wade, Penang Postcard Collection 1899–1930s (Penang: Janus Print & Resources, 2003), 222–24. (Call no. RSEA 741.683095951 KHO); Cheah Jin Seng, Penang: 500 Early Postcards (Kuala Lumpur: Editions Didier Millet, 2012), 253, 264–67. (Call no. RSEA 959.51 CHE)
12. “Penang News.”
13. Tan, Chinese in Penang, 226.
14. “Notes of the Day,” (1928, October 16). Straits Times, 16 October 1928, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “JB Chingay a Cultural Heritage,” New Straits Times, 13 February 2012, 3. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
16. “Johore News,” Straits Times, 25 February 1902, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Free Press”; Douglas, “Chinese-English Dictionary,” 104–05.
18. “Untitled”; The Loss of the S.S. “Lorne”, Straits Times Weekly Issue, 19 December 1887, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “Local and General,” Mid-day Herald, 6 December 1895, 3; ”Untitled,” Straits Times, 12 December 1903, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Local and General,”Daily Advertiser, 8 February 1893, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “The Chingay,” Mid-day Herald, 3 December 1895, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “The Royal Visit,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 24 April 1901, 2; “The Royal Visit,” Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, 5 February 1906, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “Revival of Confucianism,” The Straits Chinese Magazine, 10, no. 4 (December 1906), 203–205. (Call no. RRARE 959.5 STR; microfilm NL268)
24. “Chinese Topics in Malaya.”
25. “Local News,” The Weekly Sun, 11 March 1911, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “The New World,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 2 May 1924, 6; “Page 5 Advertisements Column 1: The New World in Celebration of the Gwek Tiong Chew Festive Season,” Straits Times, 30 September 1936, 5; “Page 9 Advertisements Column 5: Gigantic Chingay and Lantern Procession,”Malaya Tribune, 9 February 1938, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
27. “Bill That Bans Firing of Crackers Is Passed,” Straits Times, 3 June 1972, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
28. People’s Association, Chingay, 妆艺, 22.
29. “Colourful Chingay Parade Delights the Crowds,” Straits Times, 6 February 1973, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
30. “Procession on Sunday,” New Nation, 1 February 1973, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
31. “Colourful Chingay Parade Delights the Crowds.”
32. Ivan Lim, “Singapore’s First Chingay Procession a Roaring Success…,” New Nation, 10 February 1973, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
33. People’s Association, Chingay, 妆艺, 22.
34. “Setting the Mood for Tiger Year Procession,” Straits Times, 14 January 1974, 15; Koh Yan Poh and Yow Yun Who, “Ushering in New Year Chingay-Style,” Straits Times, 9 February 1978, 7; “$86,000 for Chingay,” New Nation, 31 January 1980, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
35. “Chingay a Big Hit in Orchard Road,” Singapore Monitor, 25 February 1985, 4; Edmund Tee, “A Chingay Rainbow of Colours,” Straits Times, 13 February 2000, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
36. Tee, “Chingay Rainbow of Colours.”
37. “Chingay Goes to Chinatown – Finally,” Straits Times, 2 November 2002, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
38. “Canine Procession to Mark Year of Dog Chingay Parade,” Straits Times, 11 December 1993, 31. (From NewspaperSG)
39. “Here Come the Ants,” Straits Times, 24 January 2000, 42. (From NewspaperSG)
40. People’s Association, Chingay, 妆艺, 35; “Chingay Parade Grows through Paces,” Straits Times, 26 January 1976, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
41. “Donald Duck Steps Out to Join Chingay Procession,” Straits Times, 21 January 1974, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
People’s Association, Chingay, 妆艺: Singapore on Parade (Singapore: People’s Association, 2007). (Call no. RSING 394.261 CHI-[CUS])
The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.