Bonded in tradition

The 144th Johor Chingay festival went down in history as the very first time the Johor Chingay street parade was graced by a Johor Sultan, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar.

A section of the annual Johor Chingay viewed from the
grandstand set up along its route along Jalan Wong Ah Fook
While the street parade originated as a religious tradition of the Johor Gu Miao or Old Temple, it has evolved into a cultural carnival and award-winning tourist attraction.  This spectacular show is now held on such a grand scale that it is a major heritage event with foreign media coverage as well as university researchers from China, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong coming to witness and learn more about this annual tradition.

The Chinese, who lost most of their culture and traditions during their Cultural Revolution, are thrilled that this annual tradition have been kept in Johor since the 1800s without interruption except once during the Japanese invasion in 1942.  The Johor Chingay was honoured as the Best Domestic Event in the 2009 Johor Tourism Awards and recognised as a National Cultural Heritage in 2012.

Devotees rocking the sedan chair of a temple deity
during the Johor Chingay
As a kid, I used to watch this street parade from the upstairs windows of our grandfather's house at No. 154, Jalan Ngee Heng, captivated by the colourful costumes, floats, acrobatic stunts, big-headed dolls, swirling dragon and lion dancers, prancing to the sound of crashing cymbals and thundering drums.  It was then a religious parade where temple deities were traditionally taken on an annual tour to bless the town with peace and harmony, good weather for the cultivation of gambier and to celebrate good harvests.

While researching to write about this annual tradition, I delved into historic records in the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum and joined the dots that linked the Chinese immigrant community to the Johor royal family.  I visited the Johor Old Temple and the Chinese Hall of the Sultan Abu Bakar Royal Palace Museum where I saw the two sets of Chinese couplets presented by the Chinese community leaders at the inauguration of the Johor sultanate, and a clearer picture of the strong relationship between the Chinese and Malay communities in Johor since the 1800s, emerged.

Kangchu System

Ancient chop of the Gambier & Pepper Society
seen in an exhibit in the JB Chinese Heritage Museum
This unique relationship started when Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim invited Chinese planters in Singapore and the Riau Islands to open up land in Johor to cultivate pepper and gambier.  At that time, gambier plantations were successfully run in Singapore and Riau but after being cultivated for 10 to 15 years, the land was exhausted and infertile.  So when Temenggong Ibrahim invited them to move to Johor, the Chinese were ready to relocate.

Immigrant Chinese with a strong pioneering spirit, were attracted to the prospect of huge tracts of land, just waiting for them to clear for cultivation under the kangchu or River Master system.  Under this administration, planters who arrived in Johor, obtained a permit known as, surat sungai, from the ruler.

Dragon dancers take a break from
dancing in the street parade
The kangchu or River Master were permit holders who could collect taxes and govern Chinese communities on their land along the rivers.  While kang means “river” in Teochew dialect, a kangkar was the disembarking point, usually its middle or upper reaches along the river.

The Chinese accepted the Johor ruler’s permits to start plantations here and they arrived by cargo-carrying barges or tongkang through the Segget River.  In 1844, the Teochew Ngee Heng kongxi or society, led by Tan Kee Soon was the dominant Chinese clan who made Johor their new home and settled mainly in Kangkar Tebrau.  Besides Tan Kee Soon, some of Johor’s prominent kangchu’s were Tan Hiok Nee, Lim Ah Siang and Wong Ah Fook.

Established in 1855, Iskandar Puteri, former name of Johor Baru, was then a frontier outpost with a few huts near the river, occupied by fishermen and charcoal-makers.  Surrounded by jungle and mangrove forests, a flagpole flying the Johor flag near a police post on a hill represented the presence of a government.

If you have been to the Sultan Abu Bakar Royal Palace Museum you may have seen the Sultan’s hunting trophies for an idea of the types of wild animals the once roamed the dense Johor jungles.  So besides being confronted by elephants and tigers, immigrants lost their lives to strange diseases and the harsh environment as they braved physical challenges to clear the jungles through the rivers into the interior to open up land in Johor for cultivation.

Pepper & Gambier

Gambier is a tropical shrub that can grow up to about 2 meters in height and has oval shaped leaves that can grow up to 8 or 14 cm in length.  In plantations, pepper and gambier plants were usually planted together as these plants share a symbiotic relationship and tend to grow entwined around each other.  The remains of gambier leaves on the ground act as nutrients or fertilizers for pepper plants while protecting the pepper plant roots.  

The ancient pepper & gambier is also adopted by the
Johor Baru City Council and used on their crest
Plantations in Johor sold their gambier to businessmen in Singapore, the main centre for trade in collecting and exporting the gambier produce, until the dawn of the 20th century.

Pepper and gambier earned a place of honour in Johor because their widespread cultivation played a vital role in boosting the state’s economy in the 1800’s.  With Europe as a major market, the peak of the gambier trade lasted from the 1830s to 1850s when Johor was the world’s largest producer of gambier.  Before the invention of chemical dyes, the juice from gambier leaves was widely used for leather tanning and cloth dyeing.  This industry put Johor on the world map and brought wealth to the local community.

As wealth poured into the state coffers, Chinese planters gave gambier its nickname, gam mi (Mandarin) meaning, “golden honey.”  Traders of the state’s main economy crops formed an association called the Gambier & Pepper Society.  When I looked closer at the society’s ancient chop in a museum exhibition, I saw English, Jawi and Chinese words and characters and how the present day pepper and gambier motif was probably inspired by this original design.

This iconic motif of intertwined sprigs of pepper and gambier plants has been adopted by the state and used consistently on royal regalia, official crests and as part of the decor on public buildings and on lamp-posts along expressways.

Johor Ngee Heng

Settlers from the Teochew, Hainanese, Hakka, Cantonese and Hokkien clans came to Johor not only with their culture and farming skills but also brought along their own brand of justice, gangsterism and vice.  After a period of anarchy, the clans finally agreed to surrender their secret society activities. 

Devotees in front of the Johor Old Temple at Jalan Trus
The Johor Ngee Heng kongsi played a significant role in helping Temenggong Ibrahim settle the unrest in Muar.  His son, Maharajah Abu Bakar, who succeeded Temenggong Ibrahim in 1862 tapped on the strength and spirit of brotherhood of this society and appointed Tan Hiok Nee, then leader of the Johor Ngee Heng society, as Major China of Johor in 1870 as well as Council of State, to look after Chinese community affairs.

In 1873 this society was legalised by Maharajah Abu Bakar who ascended the throne as Sultan Abu Bakar in 1885.  This society continued to evolve in its duties with the immigrant community and was the forerunner of the present day JB Tiong Hua Association.  When Johor became part of the Unfederated Malay States under the British colonial authority in 1914, the kangchu system was abolished and the Johor Ngee Heng kongsi was disbanded.

Tan Hiok Nee and the Johor Ngee Heng society contributed so significantly to Johor history that their names have been adopted as road names in the city.  Jalan Tan Hiok Nee is now transformed into Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk, a popular hipster destination, while Jalan Ngee Heng, where I grew up in our grandfather’s house, is where hotels, restaurants and medical centres, continue to thrive.

Old Temple

As a benevolent ruler, Sultan Abu Bakar continued the goodwill relationship started by Temenggong Ibrahim and encouraged the Chinese community to live in peace.  He played a role in uniting the Chinese by providing them with land to build their place of worship and for their burial. 

Facade of the Johor Old Temple viewed from its forecourt
In the late 19th century, a group of Chinese community leaders led by Tan Hiok Nee, built the Johor Old Temple at Jalan Trus.  Unlike other Chinese temples that are named after the deity it is dedicated to, the Johor Old Temple is believed to be the first Chinese temple in Malaysia to be named after a State.  The word, “Johor” in the temple’s name is attributed to the strong relationship between the Johor ruler and the Chinese immigrant community.

It is also known as the Temple of Unity as it uniquely houses the five deities worshipped by the five main Chinese clans, under-one-roof.   This temple united the Johor Chinese community in worship of their 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).  The temple is managed by a committee in the Johor Baru Tiong Hua Association.

Street Parade

The spectacular Johor Chingay street parade is an annual tradition of the Johor Old Temple, so Chinese New Year celebrations in JB does not end with Chap Goh Meh, the 15th day of the first lunar month because the festivities continue until the Chingay festival is over.

Throngs of devotees outside
Xin Gong
The celebrations begin with a Lighting-up ceremony at Xing Gong, a temporary shrine at Jalan Ulu Ayer Molek for the temple deities.  Two days ahead of the street parade, 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 tour of the city.  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 would transfer the Johor Old Temple deities on sedan chairs to Xing Gong.  The festive mood continues over the next three days as throngs of devotees converge at Xing Gong where they would also enjoy traditional stage shows of Chinese operas and musical shows performed in the five dialects.

This celebration peaks on the 21st day when city roads are closed for the evening Chingay street parade.  Carried by devotees from the five Chinese associations, the deities would join this parade accompanied by lion dancers, dragon dancers, stilt-walkers, floats, puppeteers, pugilistic troops, cultural dancers and brass bands that may take more than 7 hours to complete.  In the morning of the 22nd day, the deities would leave Xing Gong with similar loud fanfares of drums and cymbals and return to the temple until the Chingay festival next year. 

Sultan Ibrahim getting ready to beat a drum to officiate
the Johor Chingay parade 2016
The presence of aSultan Ibrahim at the Johor Chingay parade this year marked a major milestone in history as the rakyat witnessed the warm relationship between Johor royalty and the Chinese community which is rooted in links first established by Temenggong Ibrahim.  

It was just fascinating to hear shouts of “Daulat Tuanku” along with “Huat ah! (good fortune) Heng ah! (prosperity)” when the street parade marched past the grandstand where the Johor Sultan was seated.  Just as Sultan Abu Bakar continued the goodwill started by his father, this special bond with the community was strengthened by the next generations of Johor rulers to this day.

* Photos courtesy of JB Tiong Hua Association, Elizabeth Chan, Thomas Yong and Tony Wong

A version of this was published in The New Sunday Times, Life & Times on 3 April 2016

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