JB's unique temple of unity

Facade of the Johor Gu Miao or Ancient Temple
Once a year during the Lunar New Year season in Johor Baru, roads will be closed, public transport will be rerouted, many businesses will close early and traffic will be at a virtual standstill throughout the city.  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.  In JB, Lunar New Year celebrations do not end after the 15th day of the first lunar month but extends beyond the 20th day for the annual Chingay parade which is traditionally held on the 21st night of the first lunar month.

A section of the night parade passing
JB City Square on Jalan Wong Ah Fook
The JB Chingay parade is 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 has not only become a major tourist attraction in JB with foreign media coverage but was also filmed by the Teochew Broadcasting channel for screening in China.  In the 2009 Johor Tourism Awards event, the JB Chingay was honoured as the Best Domestic Event and in 2012 the JB Chingay was recognised as a National Cultural Heritage. 

Viewers of the 2014 local movie hit, “The Journey” caught a glimpse of the Chingay parade because it was featured in several scenes when Benji and Uncle Chuan arrived in JB to hand-deliver the wedding invitation to uncle’s old friends.  It was a rather far-fetched idea but still fun to watch how the invitation was presented to that friend who was participating in the parade as it passed familiar landmarks along Jalan Wong Ah Fook!

Devotees throng the street outside the temple at Jalan Trus
In the late 19th century a group of Chinese community leaders led by Tan Hiok Nee, built the Johor Gu Miao or Ancient Temple which is dubbed “the temple of unity” because deities revered by the five main dialect groups was housed under one roof.  Its opening was officiated by Sultan Abu Bakar in 1870 and with their worship united in one temple, the early Chinese community in JB prospered as they lived together in peace.  The annual night parade is part of a 3-day religious celebration for the five deities, namely “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). 

Devotees at Xing Kong, Jalan Ulu Ayer Molek
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. 

A sea of devotees surround the sedan chair of a deity
at Xing Gong
This annual celebration begins with a Lighting-up ceremony at Xing Gong, a temporary shrine for the temple deities at Jalan Ulu Ayer Molek.  Two days ahead of the 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 city “tour.”  This ceremony will somehow trigger 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 from the temple to Xing Gong

How would you like to meet so many gods of fortune?
Unlike the Chingay in Penang or Singapore which are more tourist oriented, the parade in JB is a religious celebration led by the Johor Baru Tionghua Association where the temple deities take an annual “tour” to bless the city with peace, prosperity and harmony.  

Carried on sedan chairs by devotees from the five Chinese clans, the deities will take to the streets in a colourful procession accompanied by traditional lion dancers, dragon dancers, stilt-walkers, puppeteers, pugilistic troops, cultural dancers, colourful floats and brass bands that may take more than 7 hours to complete. 

A beautiful float seen in the JB Chingay for the dragon year
Every year the celebration theme varies according to the Chinese zodiac year – dragon, horse, rabbit, tiger or other animals of the Chinese zodiac.  As we celebrate the lunar year of the ram/goat this year, we can expect spectacular sights based on this theme.

The festive mood continues over three days as throngs of devotees converge at Xing Gong to enjoy traditional stage shows that feature classical Chinese operas performed in various dialects.  Before the JB Tionghua Association built the Xing Kong, the stage shows used to be presented on traditional make-shift wooden stages set up on a grassy hillock.  But now it is better organised with a concrete shelter for the five deities of the Johor Gu Miao.

Look out for skillful stiltwalkers who can
also dance the dragon!
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 procession will move in a circuit that starts from Jalan Ulu Ayer Molek down to Jalan Ibrahim through Jalan Yahya Awal 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 be carried into the temple until their annual tour of the city next year.

In the evening of the 21st day of the first lunar month which falls on March 11 this year, the heart of JB will be thronged by devotees and spectators who will line the streets to catch a glimpse of this pulsating parade.  You are welcome to find your strategic spot for the best view and remember 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 parade as the whole community joins in the celebration of JB’s unique temple of unity. 

A version of this was published in the February 2015 issue of The Iskandarian

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