Johor's National Cultural Heritage icons

Johor has much to be proud of as three of the state’s cultural products are recognised by the Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage Ministry as National Cultural Heritage icons.

Muar's award-winning Kun Seng Keng Lion & Dragon
Dance Association, a National Cultural Heritage 2007
While these three icons may be rooted in Chinese culture, they have evolved into Malaysian symbols of unity where participants are not limited to a single ethnic group but have members from our multi-racial community and are enjoyed by the entire nation.

In 2007, Muar’s award-winning Kun Seng Keng Lion & Dragon Dance Association was recognised as a Malaysian National Cultural Heritage while JB’s 24 Festive Drums earned this honour in 2009.  In 2012, the Johor Chingay parade, an annual tradition of the Johor Gu Miao or Old Temple, was declared a National Cultural Heritage.

Lion Dancing is a tradition for auspicious celebrations like official openings and to kick-off the lunar new year.  It’s a martial arts discipline that mixes wushu with performing arts and the Kun Seng Keng Lion & Dragon Dance Association has taken the art of lion dancing to a whole new level.

Since this association was formed in 1988 by Tan Chong Hing, the art of lion dancing has been skillfully developed in its traditional form and high-pole lion dancing, and achieved international recognition as a leading lion dancing group. 

As the defending champion, the Kun Seng Keng Association beat 10 other teams to clinch its 11th trophy at the recent Genting World Lion Dance Championship.  This trophy proudly joins 75 national and 63 international titles the association has achieved since its inception.

The annual Johor Chingay, a National Cultural Heritage 2012
The pulsating Johor Chingay parade has also earned its place of pride as an annual tradition kept in practice since the 1800s without any interruption except once during the Japanese invasion in 1942.  It was once 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.

It has since transformed into a street carnival with a spectacular show of colourful costumes, floats, acrobatic stunts, big-headed dolls, swirling dragons and lion dancers, prancing to the sound of crashing cymbals and thundering drums.  It is now a major tourist attraction with foreign media coverage and studied by university researchers from China, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Media launch of the 4th International Invitation of
24 Festive Drums event at the JB Tiong Hua Association
This September, Johor Baru is gearing up to welcome drummers from the world over to participate in the 4th International Invitation of 24 Festive Drums event.  Since 2010, the JB Drums Festival was hosted every two years for local troops to pitch their skills at a progressively high level of competition while international troops show off their drumming talents with pride.

When Tan Chai Puan and the late Tan Hooi Song founded the Festive Drums in 1988, they did not know that this dramatic art of drumming would grow into an international art-form.  While they were then working together on the National Dance Festival in JB, they decided that drums would create the right mood as its resounding beats reflect the rhythm of life.

Tan Hooi Seong, a former music teacher at Foon Yew High School, was honoured with the award for Warisan Orang Hidup or A Living Heritage, for successfully creating an art of drumming that incorporated uniquely Malaysian traits.  In August 2008, he passed away peacefully after losing the battle to cancer.

While the drums are a cultural element from China, this Johor-born art of drumming has spread nationwide and abroad.  Over the years, fans of the 24 Festive Drums saw how this art-form evolved to a higher level of sophistication with stylish drumming, choreography, costumes and themes where artistic formations and even facial expressions helped to gain points in competitions.

Since 2008, drumming was included in the primary 6 school syllabus and drum troops were established in primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities in East and West Malaysia and even among the physically handicapped.  Corporations and private enterprises also started their own drum troops as part of their teambuilding efforts.

24 Festive Drums, a National Cultural Heritage 2009
When the 24 Festive Drums was honoured as a National Cultural Heritage in 2009, this recognition drove drummers to develop this art of drumming more professionally to keep it viable into the future.  Coach Training Programmes were established to guide drummers with a standard syllabus, monitored by a professional technical committee and supported by the Ministry of Education.

It was interesting that this art of drumming was exported to China when the Foon Yew High School troop proudly performed the 24 Festive Drums at Teochew City, on their first visit there in 2008.  Malaysian students in China then helped to pioneer the first drum troop in Hokkien province, which now has some 300 drummers!

That same year, Malaysian students in Oklahoma State University started the first 24 Festive Drums troop in the United States.  Their proudest achievement was in 2010 when the drum troop was invited to perform at the NBA games’ half-time, in Oklahoma City.  

Catch the video of the Drums event on the
screen of Holidayvilla Hotel JB, this season
With wide international exposure, there are now more than 300 drum troops worldwide including professional troops in Singapore, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United States. 

Since the inaugural 2010 Drums Festival, competitive drumming has been taken to higher levels of performance and showmanship, with an emphasis on performing arts, enhanced by professional lighting, sound and stage presentations.  

To pick the best troops to participate in the coming competition, four regional competitions were held in the Northern, Southern, Eastern and Central regions.  Such strict selection promises fans a stunning show, with the cream of drum troops competing to proof their mettle and superior edge over the others, this September.

As more global drumming fans are being garnered, drumming enthusiasts here eagerly anticipate that day when the 24 Festive Drums may be established in JB as an iconic festival.

A version of this was published in the September 2016 issue of The Iskandarian  

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