Rediscovering Chingay

Published on 17 February 2015

Elaborate floats, towering stilt-walkers, vibrant multicultural performances… Chingay dazzles with sheer exuberance today. But how did this street party begin?

TEXT BY PAMELA HO

‘Chingay’ comes from the Chinese word zhuang yi (妆艺), which means ‘dressed up for a masquerade’. With its explosion of colour and pageantry, it has been compared to Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras — but carried out Singapore style!

Into its 43rd year, Chingay 2015 will feature 11,000 performers, 19 international groups and at least 15 elaborate floats in its night parade. It’s no wonder 17 per cent of tourists come to Singapore specially for this annual event.

Farewell, Firecrackers

Chingay was birthed after the banning of firecrackers in Singapore in 1972. It’s believed that firecrackers drive away evil spirits. During Chinese New Year (CNY), these explosive cylinders are set off with a loud bang for good luck. Unfortunately, firecrackers damaged property, caused injuries and deaths, leading to the ban.

Then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew mooted the idea of a festive street parade, something he adopted and adapted from Penang. The People’s Association was given the task of breathing life into this idea.

On 4 February 1973, the first Chingay parade took off — with rousing dragon and lion dances, martial arts and street opera. At 11am, it left Victoria School at Jalan Besar and made its way to Outram Park, attracting curious bystanders along its 8km route.

This completely Chinese celebration took on a multicultural flavour in 1976. “Back then, there was no arts scene, so the Malay and Indian groups performed traditional wedding processions from their kampungs,” recounts Mdm Lim Ah Yoke, who joined People’s Association in 1962 and has been involved in Chingay since day one.

In 1987, Chingay welcomed its first foreign group — four pop singers from Tokyo. Fast-forward to 2015 and we’ll see 750 performers from Russia to Rwanda, Turkey to Taiwan.

We Like to Move It, Move It!

From Jalan Besar in 1973, the parade moved to housing estates the following year, then to Orchard Road in 1985 followed by City Hall in 2008. In 2010, Chingay made its debut at the F1 Pit Building.

What began as an 8km route is now a 360m stretch, flanked on both sides by spectator stands. But what the parade lost in distance, it made up for in scale and quality, enabled by a more controlled environment and sophisticated system of lighting and sound.

“Chingay began as just a procession, but in the ’90s, we started doing shows thematically,” reveals Fan Dong Kai (above), who joined the creative team as a choreographer in 1992, and has been its artistic director since 2003. “We also started involving the local arts community.”

Star Power

The Who’s Who of Singapore’s arts community have long had a hand in Chingay, including Cultural Medallion recipients, renowned poet Prof Edwin Thumboo, the late music composer Iskandar Ismail (top), musician Liang Wern Fook and multi-disciplinary artist Tan Swie Hian.

Also among the luminaries are theatre practitioners Chong Tze Chien, George Chan and Sebastian Tan.

This year, Singaporean singer-songwriter and pop sensation, JJ Lin, will perform live. He co-wrote the music for the finale song, ‘Dreams’, with Chingay’s music director, Goh Kheng Long. The lyrics are penned by another celebrated singer-songwriter, Corrinne May.

Tradition With a Twist

Perhaps more significant is Chingay’s role in keeping our traditional arts alive. “We ought to see Chingay as a cultural feast of traditional items,” says Fan. “But even with something as traditional as dragon dance, we’ll throw in an innovative twist — like creating the world’s first Firecracker Dragon, made of bamboo and entwined with live firecrackers!” Stilt-walkers, who have long been a Chingay staple, have also moved with the times, performing now to hip-hop music instead of CNY tunes.

For locals and foreigners, Chingay is the perfect opportunity to rediscover the full splendour of Singapore’s multicultural roots. Think of it as going for a dim sum buffet for a sampling of bite-sized culture!

ALL IN ONE Indian, Malay, Chinese, and more — Chingay is a scrumptious buffet of cultures and traditions, all in one place. (PHOTOS  People’s Association)

Chingay Parade 2015 is on at the F1 Pit Building, 27-28 Feb, 8pm-10pm. Tickets available via Sistic. There will also be a special Chingay SG50 event at Orchard Road, 1 Mar, 7pm-10pm.

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