Ready for JB's Chingay?

Big-headed dolls are a regular feature
in JB's Chingay parade
Once a year, roads will be closed and traffic will be at a virtual standstill in Johor Baru.  Public transport will be rerouted and many businesses will close early.  Schools will dismiss afternoon sessions early for students to get home quickly so that they can join the throng who will converge in the heart of the city. 

If you are familiar with the Lunar New Year celebrations in JB, then you will know that this is all about the Chingay parade, an annual tradition that has been kept in this city since the 1800’s without any interruption except during the Japanese invasion in 1942.  This spectacular show has been held on such a grand scale that it is not only a tourist attraction with foreign media coverage but has also been filmed by the Teochew Broadcasting channel and screened in China.  After the JB Chingay was honoured as the Best Domestic Event in the 2009 Johor Tourism Awards, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak graced it in 2012 and certified the parade as a National Cultural Heritage.

Facade of the Johor Gu Miao or Ancient Temple
along Jalan Trus, surrounded by high-rise buildings
To understand the significance of the JB Chingay, you should take a peek into the Johor Gu Miao or Ancient Temple that uniquely houses 5 deities, “Zhao Da Yuan Shuai” (Hainanese), “Hua Guang Da Di” (Cantonese), “Gan Tian Da Di” (Hakka), “Hong Xian Da Di” (Hokkien) and “Yuan Tian Shang Di” (Teochew). 

In the late 19th century a group of Chinese community leaders led by Tan Hiok Nee, built the temple which is dubbed “the temple of unity” and its opening was officiated by Sultan Abu Bakar in 1870.  With their worship united in one temple, the early Chinese community in JB prospered as they lived in peace.

Some statues of the temple deities inside Johor Gu Miao
Unlike other Chinese temples that usually bear the name of deities, the Johor Gu Miao is believed to be the first Chinese temple in Malaysia to be named after a State.  The strong relationship between Johor’s ruler, Temenggong Ibrahim and the Chinese immigrant community was the underpinning reason for the word “Johor” to be incorporated into the temple’s name.  His son, Sultan Abu Bakar, encouraged the Chinese community to live in peace and continued the goodwill relationship started by Temenggong Ibrahim.  

In JB, the Chingay procession is a religious celebration led by the Johor Baru Tionghua Association where the temple deities are taken on an annual “tour” to bless the city with peace, prosperity and harmony.  Carried by devotees from the 5 Chinese clans, the deities take to the streets accompanied by traditional lion dancers, dragon dancers, stilt-walkers, puppeteers, pugilistic troops, cultural dancers, colourful floats and brass bands that will take more than 7 hours to complete.  The annual celebration begins with a Lighting-up ceremony at Xing Gong, a temporary shrine at Jalan Ulu Ayer Molek for the temple deities. 

Devotees raising their hands at statues of deities
passing by in the Chingay parade
Two days ahead of the procession, a group of devotees will walk the streets sounding gongs in a symbolic Street Washing ceremony, a ritual cleansing of the route in preparation for the temple deities’ annual city “tour.”  This ceremony somehow triggers off rainfall as Nature cooperates to wash the streets with refreshing showers.  In the morning of the 20th day of the first lunar month, devotees will carry the deities out on sedan chairs to Xing Gong. 

The festive mood continues over the next three days as throngs of pilgrims and devotees converge at Xing Gong where they can also enjoy traditional stage shows that feature classic Chinese operas performed in various dialects.  Before the JB Tionghua Association developed this area, the stage shows were presented on traditional make-shift wooden stages set up on its grassy hillock.  Now Xing Gong is better organised with a concrete shelter for the 5 deities of the Johor Gu Miao to assemble there.

Statues of the temple deities at the Xing Gong
during the 3-day religious celebration in JB
The highlight of this celebration is the Chingay parade on the evening of the 21st day when the deities are taken out in a procession through the city’s main streets.  The colourful procession will move in a circuit that starts from Jalan Ulu Ayer Molek down to Jalan Ibrahim and return along the length of Jalan Wong Ah Fook and Jalan Tun Abdul Razak, back to Xing Gong.  In the morning of the 22nd day, the deities will leave Xing Gong and return to the temple until their annual tour of the city next year.

On March 2, the 21st day of the first lunar month, the heart of JB is going to be thronged by devotees and spectators who will line the streets to catch a glimpse of this pulsating parade.  If you want to be part of this exciting evening, go early to find your strategic spot for the best view and do not fret if you get caught in vehicular and human traffic.  Just go with the flow and enjoy the sights and sounds of JB’s annual Chingay!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 25 February 2013

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