Johor Sultan at the Johor Chingay

The Johor Sultan, His Royal Highness Sultan Ibrahim Almarhum Sultan Iskandar, made history when he graced this year’s Johor Chingay parade with his presence.

Sultan Ibrahim, beating a drum, witnessed by VIPs at the
grandstand for Johor Chingay 2016
When Sultan Ibrahim announced that he would join the rakyat for the Chingay parade this year, the Johor Baru Tiong Hua Association was abuzz with excitement.  Having kept this annual tradition for the Johor Old Temple or Gu Miao since the mid 19th century without interruption except once during the 1942 Japanese invasion, the Johor Sultan’s presence at the Chingay was of great significance to the Johor Chinese.

Unlike other Chinese temples that usually bear the deity’s name, the Johor Gu Miao is believed to be the first Chinese temple in Malaysia to be named after a State.  The strong relationship between the Johor ruler and the Chinese immigrant community was the underpinning reason for “Johor” to be part of the temple’s name.

To understand this unique relationship, we should look back to 1844 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 Lord system.  Under this administration, planters who arrived in Johor, obtained a permit known as, surat sungai, from the ruler.

Map of Johor kangchu settlements in the 1800s,
seen in the JB Chinese Heritage Museum
In the kangchu system, 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.

Not long after Iskandar Puteri was established in 1855, the Chinese accepted Temenggong Ibrahim’s permits to start plantations here and they arrived by cargo-carrying barges or tongkang through the Segget River.  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.

Iskandar Puteri with its capital, Tanjung Puteri, 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 seen the Sultan’s hunting trophies preserved in the Sultan Abu Bakar Royal Palace Museum, then you have an idea of the types of wild animals the once roamed the dense Johor jungles.  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 for cultivation.

A sketch of the facade of the Johor Gu Miao
by Johor artist, Yap Hanzhen
Before the invention of chemical dyes, the juice from gambier leaves was widely used for leather tanning and cloth dyeing.  The widespread cultivation of pepper and gambier played a vital role to boost the state’s economy, put Johor on the world map and brought wealth to the local community.  With Europe as a major market, Johor became the world’s largest producer of gambier between 1830 and 1850.

His son, Temenggong Abu Bakar succeeded Temenggong Ibrahim in 1862 and appointed Tan Hiok Nee, 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.  A group of Chinese community leaders led by Tan Hiok Nee, built the Johor Gu Miao.

Dubbed the Temple of Unity, it uniquely houses the deities worshipped by the five main dialect groups under one roof.  The annual Chingay 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).  Generations of Johor Chinese have passed down a legend that the temple was declared opened by Sultan Abu Bakar while he was on a walk with his good friend, Tan Hiok Nee!

While the Chingay originated as a religious tradition where the temple deities were taken on an annual “tour” to bless the city with peace and harmony, good weather for cultivation of gambier and to celebrate the plantations’ good harvest, the parade has evolved into a cultural carnival.

Photo taken by Uncle Victor in 1968 when the
Johor Chingay passed Jalan Ngee Heng 
I have vivid memories of this pulsating parade because it used to pass our grandfather’s house at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng and photos of the 1968 Chingay, captured by our Uncle Victor, are treasured mementoes.  This spectacular show is now held on such a grand scale that it is a major tourist attraction with foreign media coverage and even documented by Asian broadcasting channels.

In the 2009 Johor Tourism Awards, the Johor Chingay was honoured as the Best Domestic Event and recognised as a National Cultural Heritage in 2012.

Another photo from Uncle Victor's collection, taken where
Jalan Ngee Heng joins Jalan Trus
The warm relationship between the Johor royal family and Chinese in the pioneering era is reflected in two sets of Chinese couplets presented by the Chinese community leaders at the inauguration of the Johor sultanate and preserved in the Chinese Hall of the Sultan Abu Bakar Royal Palace Museum.  As a benevolent ruler, Sultan Abu Bakar continued the goodwill started by his father and this special bond was bolstered by the next generations of Johor rulers to this day.

The presence of aSultan Ibrahim at the parade marks a major milestone in Johor history as the rakyat witnessed first-hand, the strong relationship of Johor royalty with the Chinese community, rooted in links established by Temenggong Ibrahim.  The Sultan’s presence was a shining example of strong race relations and proof of a ruler who truly has a heart for his people.

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

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