There are innumerable religious festivals of purely regional interest in Malaysia . But in 1880, one celebration in Penang to “welcome the Spring” during the New Year season, went round George Town . This procession captured the fascination of a European missionary and was vividly recorded. Penang became famous at the turn of the century with this “Giant Flags Procession”.
In many primitive societies, a procession is one of the most basic expressions of communal unity. In the history of Chinese tradition, deafening drums, cymbals and gongs, dance and street gaiety have always been part of the way the common people celebrate any big occasions which included Lunar New Years, religious commemoration and festivities.
There is no historical record of how the word “Chingay” originated. But records show that as early as the 19 th century, Chingay appeared in South East Asia, beginning in Penang . The word was coined from its phonetic Hokkien equivalent, which means “the art of costume and masquerade”. It alluded to a Chinese styled decorated miniature stage or float borne on the shoulders of performers. This miniature stage depicts an important historical scene. It was probably the beginning of the manual float. During New Year processions in old China , such floats were carried through the streets on men's shoulders while dancers, jugglers and magicians entertained the crowds. Huge animals, both real and mythical took part in the processions, which were essentially religious in nature and aimed at honouring deities at the beginning of each new year.
In Penang , the Baba or Straits Born Chinese perpetuated the practice. Some claimed Chingay originated even before the arrival of Sir Francis Light. The procession was specifically Chinese and religious: To honour the five deities who serve as guardians or patron saints each for a different dialect group. In pre-war years, the annual procession was a three-day fiesta which involved the whole town. The main elements included giant triangular flags and lanterns, which were the trademarks of Penang 's Chingay “The Giant Flags Procession”.
The high point in 1905 was the Chingay Decoration Competition . Everyone tried to outwit the others with refreshing ways of decorating the miniature stage, with some selecting the prettiest girl to sit on the float. Even donkeys were used for the first time to carry and pull the float, replacing men. The seed of “motorised” float was hence planted.
With the advent of war, the Chingays in Penang quietened down and eventually became localised religious celebrations.
But the traditions of Chingay spread further south to Johore. It took on a new lease of life in the 60s and became part of the Chinese New Year celebrations and a three-day festivity. Every Chinese dialect group competed to put up the best item for their group. Trucks carried generators and followed the procession in order to provide mobile lighting for the procession.
The Johore procession had dragon and lion dances, and stilt walkers as their highlight. With the clanging of cymbals and beating of gongs and drums, it was bustling with noise and excitement.
The wind of Chingay blew to Singapore twelve years later in 1973. Today, it is associated with an explosion of colours and most of all, joyous noise of cymbals, drums and voices.
Many did not remember that Chingay was introduced as a substitute for a different kind of noise: firecrackers. In 1972, the government banned firecrackers after a fatal explosion in the Lunar New Year period killed two people. The ban, although necessary, disappointed many who felt that it dampened the festive spirit.
So in June 1972, the former Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, wrote to the former Deputy Chairman of the People's Association Mr Jek Yeun Thong. He felt that some other activities should make up for the absence of the traditional sound. He said there was a Chingay Procession in Penang organised by the Chinese Pugilistic Associations there. The former Prime Minister then proposed to get the pugilistic associations in Singapore to mount a really massive procession and display for Chinese New Year.
The People's Association and the Singapore National Pugilistic Federation came together to stage a grand street show to add to the gaiety and excitement of the Lunar season in 1973. Although not religious in nature, the first procession, consisting about 2,000 participants, was totally Chinese, with a potpourri of stilt-walkers, big-headed dolls, pugilistic groups and mini operas. There were also prancing lion and dragon dancers and flag bearers who showed off their prowess in balancing the gigantic and colourful triangular flags, reminiscent of the Penang Chingay.
So well received was the first parade in 1973 that it became an annual event. For over a decade, the procession toured different housing estates from 1974 to 1984. Since 1985, Orchard Road became a permanent venue, which garnered a wide following among tourists and Singaporeans.