No event captures the spirit of Singapore’s ethnic diversity and eclectic blend of eastern tradition and western modernity better than the annual Chingay Parade – a procession of dazzling floats, dancers and cultural performers from around the world. This yearly highlight has since transcended its roots as a culturally exclusive religious festival to a secular celebration of what makes Singapore truly unique.
Derived from the Chinese term ‘zhuangyi’, Chingay refers to the art of masquerading, alluding to the traditional practice of having floats depicting religious and historical scenes. Early Chingay parades were often held in celebration of a certain deity – in Penang, elaborate processions honoured Tua Pek Kong, the God of Prosperity, while in 19th century Singapore, it was the Ma Chor Po, the protector of seafarers, who was celebrated. Due to its strong religious undertones and extravagance, Chingay was perceived to be a ‘culturally backward’ practice and a profligate use of money, and by 1906, the practice was abolished.
Demonstrating a new era, the modern Chingay Parade in Singapore reinvented itself without the singular cultural roots of the past. Instead, it became a suitable replacement for firecrackers, which were banned in the 1970s due to a spate of fire incidents and deaths. It was hoped that the Chingay Parade would evoke as much pomp and eagerness as the traditional setting off of firecrackers. Today, this temporary solution has become equally, if not even more well received.
The first Chingay Parade since the ban in 1906 took place in 1973 and was largely Chinese by design and was clearly inspired by its counterpart in Malacca and Penang, with lion dancers, stilt walkers dressed in traditional Chinese garb, and flag bearers expertly wielding giant flags taking to the parade grounds. Even the parade themes were heavily influenced by Chinese cosmological beliefs.
In contrast, the Chingay Parades of today include people of different ethnicity, even different nationalities, coming together to celebrate a joyous occasion with the same, if not greater, degree of pomp and enthusiasm. Eurasian, Malay and Indian dance troupes as well as cultural performers have also taken to the parade grounds. This mix of diversity has transformed the Chingay Parade from an exclusively Chinese event to an exclusively Singaporean one. Plus, since its inauguration, the parade has had foreign troupes from more than 15 different countries, each adding a new, vibrant stroke to this celebration of harmony in diversity.
Little wonder that the Chingay Parade is often seen as a physical embodiment of what modern Singapore stands for – multiculturalism, global perspective, racial harmony and achieving a delicate balance between tradition and modernity. People of different creeds come together in the spirit of joy and celebration, demonstrating their passion and adeptness in the traditional and modern arts. Not only does the Chingay Parade provide a bird’s eye view of what defines Singapore, it also showcases what Singapore is and can be to the world.
As the parade continues to grow in scale, this annual event has since become Asia’s largest street performance and parade. Its popularity is even comparable to other popular parades around the world such as the Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the Rio Carnival in Rio De Janeiro.
The Chingay Parade typically takes place around the Lunar New Year, but the actual date differs from year to year. Celebrated over two days, one can catch the elaborate procession of dancers and floats at the parade grounds by purchasing tickets with official retailer SISTIC, or head over to specified locations across Singapore’s many housing estates to catch a glimpse of the floats in the heartlands.