Chingay ritual, spanning across five days, is one of the oldest celebrations in Malaysia running for over a century. This annual tradition of Johor Bahru marks the end of the Chinese New Year. Although known to many for its Night Parade, Chingay has a strong religious foundation.
Chinese New Year in Malaysia
The Chinese New Year in Malaysia ends on the 15th day of the first lunar month with Chap Goh Meh. But not in Johor Bahru, where the celebration is over only after the religious ceremony, known as Chingay.
I first heard about Chingay from a young Malaysian lady passionate about the culture of her own country. Not long after I found myself in Johor Bahru, affectively called JB, a large Malaysian town located on the border with Singapore.
Chingay is the annual tradition in Johor Bahru culminating in the procession, known as the Night Parade.
The Chinese communities parade the five deities around the town with the purpose to ensure that the gods have a good time so that they bless Johor Bahru with luck, prosperity and harmony.
Chingay procession is one of the largest celebrations in the country. It’s estimated that in 2017 it attracted more than 500’000 people. Despite its giant size, Chingay is unknown to foreign tourists. As the rare international visitors, my husband and myself were taken by assault by local journalists.
Chingay Night Parade is also one of the oldest celebrations in Malaysia running for over 140 years. However, not many people know that the procession is actually part of the Chingay ritual that spans across five days, starting from the night of the 18th day to the 22nd day of the first month of the lunar calendar.
To mark the beginning of the Chingay ritual, the opening ceremony, called the Lighting ceremony, is organised on the 18th day. The opening by key officials is accompanied by traditional performances, loud and banging firecrackers and fireworks sounding like a combination of machine-gun noises and rocket launchers.
Shortly after the beginning of the Lighting ceremony, the rain started to pour, and the audience went under cover. But the brave performers continue on the stage in front of empty seats.
Street cleansing ceremony
On the second day, the main streets of Johor Bahru are cleansed by a symbolic washing ceremony to prepare the route for deities, who will undertake their annual journey around the city.
Devotees, dressed in red, walk along the 10km route, and using pomelo or lemon tree leaves, sprinkle the streets with water soaked in the mixture of raw rice, salt and tea leaves. The procession is accompanied by loud beating of gongs, cymbals and drums.
Despite having fun with sprinkling water on photographers’ lenses and large smiles on peoples’ faces, the ritual is taken very seriously. The street cleansing and loud banging intend to ward off evil spirits in preparation for the deities’ annual journey around the town.
Call it mystics or not, it has been observed for years that the street cleansing ceremony triggers rainfall, which will properly wash the streets.
Mounting of deities on sedans
Once the street cleansing is over, it’s time to prepare the temple deities for their annual journey around Johor Bahru on divine sedan chairs. This important task is performed by the leaders and designated experts from each of the five Chinese clans, always men.
The event takes place in the Old Temple. Squeezed between modern buildings, it’s one of the oldest structures in Johor Bahru and home to the five deities, each associated with the five main Chinese clans, namely, Zhao Da Yuan Shuai (Hainan), Hua Guang Da Di (Kwong Siew), Gan Tian Da Di (Hakka), Hong Xian Da Di (Hokkien), and Yuan Tian Shang Di (Teochew). They aren’t their original deities but they have been symbolically assigned to each clan.
When the time comes to prepare the deities, the commotion reaches its climax. The small temple is crowded beyond its limits. The air is thin and the tension is high. I am in the best position for taking shots of the action but in a couple of minutes, I am suddenly pushed aside. The crowd becomes larger and more frantic. Hundreds of hands try to reach the deities to pay homage. A tiny place behind a column soon becomes my island of safety.
But the apparent chaos is somehow controlled by group leaders. With yelling and strong gestures, they manage to calm down the public in order to safely take out the deities from their abode.
Similar to women taking care of their children and dressing them in their most beautiful clothes for special occasions, men take care of their gods by decorating them with red cloths and elaborate crowns.
“Heng-ah” and “Huat-ah”, the exclamations meaning “good luck”, are heard all around.
In addition to beautifying the deities for their annual walkabout, the men prepare their divine sedans. The sedan chairs are filled with gold and silver joss paper and tied up with red cloth in order to tightly fasten the deities. No wonder that the preparation goes on for a few hours.
The sedans will be violently rocked while travelling around the city. Securing the deities on their sedans so that they don’t drop during all the jostling surrounding their annual tour is a big responsibility.
Deities’ first coming out
One day before the Chingay procession, the deities are taken from the Old Temple to Xing Gong, a temporary shrine built to accommodate large crowds.
If on the previous day the atmosphere in the Old Temple bordered general mayhem, today it reached its apogee.
Taking the deities for the first time out of the temple is a crucial moment attracting huge crowds. The local Chinese and the devotees wearing colour-coded t-shirts, each representing one of the five Chinese clans, everyone feels excited.
The Old Temple is crammed a few hours before the actual event takes place. It seems like all Johor Bahru Chinese communities came to the temple to try to catch a glimpse of the deities’ first coming out and to take a shot of the scene. Even those accompanying sedans are well equipped with GoPro raised on high sticks.
This is not the place for claustrophobic. The temple is packed, and the crowd becomes more and more agitated. “it can become dangerous over here,” tells me a kind old man, “it’s better for you to move out”. But I want to shot the action captivated by its energy and its inner force, and I stay.
Carrying the deities is an honourable task, and everyone tries to be as closer to the gods as possible. The scene resembles more the Storming of the Bastille than a peaceful religious ceremony. All of a sudden, general stir is felt in the air. Countless cameras are poised at the their ready, and the palms are put together in prayer – the deities start their walk.
With “Heng-ah” and “Huat-ah”, the sedans are violently rocked to the great delight of the public.
This is not the place to gawk either. The atmosphere is electrified and rather rowdy. Boisterous and overenthusiastic men, with heavy sedans on their shoulders, make their way out of the temple. With the huge crowd trying to get as closer to the sedans as possible, the doorway becomes a real obstacle. At some point, I start doubting they will proceed any further. But the tough men make it through rather fast.
The deities’ annual journey finally begins. The deities are carried in a particular order, with Yuan Tian Shang Di, the main and the most powerful deity, being carried the last in the most revered position.
The procession of robust men carrying heavy sedans is accompanied by traditional performances, including lion and dragon dances and intriguing-looking giant dolls.
From time to time, the devotees wildly rock the sedan chairs. This ritual is believed to keep their deities’ mood up.
The only deity that isn’t subject to rocking or jostling because of the highest respect is Yuan Tian Shang Di, the principal deity of the Old Temple. The sedans’ rocking is accompanied by loud “Heng-ah” and “Huat-ah”.
Each deity is welcomed with prayers, and lots of cheers and celebrations in Xing Gong, where they will be left for the night.
The offering ceremony is also organised, with fruits, cakes, wine and even whole huge pigs presented to the gods.
Married people without children often offer dolls asking the deities to bring them a baby. It’s strongly believed that people’s wishes will come true.
Chingay Night Parade
The next day is the famous Night Parade, a colourful and lively event. For many Malaysians, it’s the highlight of Chingay.
The deities’ coming out from Xing Gong for their annual journey around Johor Bahru is a great moment, and a large crowd has gathered at the temporary shrine a few hours before the event. Everyone is here, including dragon dancers and giant dolls.
Each deity is welcomed with prayers and a shower of confetti.
Deities are carried around the main streets of Johor Bahru to bless the city with peace and prosperity.
They are accompanied by the bright and loud procession, including lion and dragon dancers, flashy floats, smoke blowing and terrifying-looking huge dragons, big-headed dolls, famous giant flags, and music. It’s a 10km long journey, which takes about 7 hours to complete. I am simply impressed by the stamina, enthusiasm and determination of the devotees and the performers.
Huge crowds line up along the entire procession road waiting for the sedans to pass. Every time the deity passes by, people clasp their palms in prayer. From now and then, gods are rocked to light up their mood equally raising the mood of the crowd.
It’s well after midnight but the whole city is still awake. Old and young alike are still on the streets not wishing to miss the entire procession. But with the sounds fading away, the end of the procession is now eminent. Finally, it’s time to call it night.
Return of deities to the Old Temple
The deities’ annual tour of the city is over, and the next day, the devotees bring them back to the Old Temple. Similar to their coming out, the return of the deities is a major event attracting huge crowds.
Once the deities are returned to the Old Temple, the Johor Bahru Chinese residents can finally sleep in peace – the Chinese New Year is officially over.
Dates: The Chingay Festival’s main events fall on the 20th to 22nd days of the first month of lunar calendar.
In 2017, the Chingay Festival was held as follows:
14 February (18th day of the first lunar month): Lighting ceremony starting at 7pm at Xing Gong temporary shrine set up at Jalan Ulu Ayer Molek.
15 February (19th day): Street cleansing ceremony starting at 11am at the Old Temple followed by the mounting of deities on the sedans, again at the Old Temple.
16 February (20th day): Prelude Parade starting at 11am and going from the Old Temple to Xing Gong.
17 February (21st day): Night Parade starts at 7pm at Xing Gong, goes through the main streets of the city and goes back to Xing Gong. The entire journey is about 10km, which takes about 7 hours to complete. The Grand Stand, the main stage with the members of the Royal Family and other VIPs is located along Jalan Wong Ah Fook street. The procession arrives there between 9 and 10pm.
18 February (22nd day): Return of deities from Xing Gong (leaving at 11am) to the Old Temple (arriving at around noon).
Location: The Chingay Festival takes place in the city of Johor Bahru located in Johor province in southern Malaysia, right across Singapore. The festivities take place at the Old Temple, Xing Gong (temporary shrine) and the streets of Johor Bahru.
Transportation: Johor Bahru is about 5h from Kuala Lumpur. Located in front of Singapore, the two cities are connected by the causeway taking 5min to cross by car or by bus (it can be 2 hours due to high traffic)
Accommodation in Johor Bahru is surprisingly quite expensive compared to other cities in Malaysia. Due to its proximity to Singapore, Johor Bahru is very popular with the Singaporeans contributing to its relatively high prices.
Meldrum is a good area to stay during the Chingay Festival as it’s located a few steps away from the main parade road and also near the Old Temple.