Location : Johor, Malaysia
Source :New Straits Times,16 February 2012
THE chants reverberated almost in unison: "Heng ah, huat ah, ong ah!" As the devotees chanted these words, which mean lucky, prosperity and auspicious respectively, they seemed to be transported to a different world.
Carrying their clan deities on sedan chairs, they paused every now and then to rock the chairs from side to side. The minute they did this, a sudden uproar erupted as more devotees rushed forward to try and touch the chairs to claim their share of good fortune. Spectators echoing the loud chants also raised lit joss sticks with their hands and prayed.
The heart of Johor Baru came to a virtual standstill then. More than 200,000 devotees and spectators lined the streets last Sunday to catch a glimpse of the Chingay festival, a street procession on the 21st day of the first lunar month in the Chinese calendar.
Temple deities from Johor Ku Miao temple were once again brought out to be paraded in the city in the annual Chingay. Throughout the procession, the noise level on the streets was deafening. Every segment of the community was involved because roads were closed and traffic diverted, as schools, offices and businesses closed earlier so everyone could enjoy the procession that started at twilight!
It was an event worth waiting for, all the more because the Johor Chingay procession - the result of a 148-year-old tradition - had been declared a national cultural heritage, joining the ranks of mak yong, Malay joget, lion dance and nine other cultural practices in the list of 50 Malaysia National Heritage.
It was an even sweeter moment when that declaration was made by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak in front of the thousands who thronged the streets of Johor Baru.
Najib presented the certificate of recognition to Johor Baru Tionghua Association president Lim Ik Kim. Joining in the merriment were the Prime Minister´s wife Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, Johor Menteri Besar Datuk Abdul Ghani Othman, Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen, Home Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Tun Hussein, MCA president Datuk Dr Chua Soi Lek and foreign ambassadors.
The participating groups started assembling at 5.30pm at Jalan Ulu Ayer Molek, where Xing Gong, a temporary shrine for the temple deities, was located. The parade line spanned a few kilometres from Jalan Ulu Ayer Molek to Jalan Yahya Awal. It wound its way to the VIP grandstand set up in front of Johor Baru City Square.
The sight of Chingay 2012 was spectacular, with 18 colourfully decorated floats - some from Singapore, China, Hong Kong and Japan - and a few international award-winning performers in the stunning 24-Festive drum show, acrobatic high-pole lion dance and dragon dance.
The Johor Baru Teochew Eight Districts Association brought its 94-strong team of Yin Ge (Eng Kor in Teochew dialect) dancers and musicians of the Dance Of Heroes from the Water Margins, an art form that was gazetted as a national heritage in mainland China in 2006. This troupe, made up of 72 male dancers dressed in colourful warrior costumes with faces painted in dramatic expressions and 22 musicians from Shantou, wowed the audience with their energetic and captivating performance that included segments with drama, dance, songs and martial arts.
As this is the lunar year of the Dragon, dragon dancing troupes went all out to impress by creating unique dragons from items as diverse as paper angpau packets, woolen pom-pom balls, woven ribbons, silk roses, plastic bubbles and even balloons. While a group opted to carry their dragon on a train of tricycles, one of the most outstanding dragon dancers must have been the troupe from Hong Yang Sports Association who performed their routine on stilts!
It was a longer procession this year, probably because of the large number of participating dragons, but the sense of unity and camaraderie was strong as the community in Johor Baru turned out in full force to enjoy the close of the Chinese New Year celebrations.
The annual celebrations in Johor Baru are unique as they do not end with Chap Goh Meh, the 15th day of the first lunar month. The festivities continue for another week and will culminate with the Johor Ku Miao´s annual tradition of a five-day religious ceremony. This tradition has been preserved since the 1800s without any interruption, except during the Japanese invasion in 1942. The highlight of this celebration is, of course, the Chingay.
The Johor Baru Tionghua Association, which manages the ancient temple, leads this procession with participation by the five Chinese clans representing the Teochew, Hainanese, Hakka, Cantonese and Hokkien communities. Unlike the Singapore Chingay which has evolved into an extravagantly choreographed street parade with many foreign participants, the Johor Chingay is a religious celebration where the temple deities are taken on an annual "tour" to bless the city with peace, prosperity and harmony.
Carried by devotees from the five Chinese associations, the deities take to the streets accompanied by traditional lion dancers, dragon dancers, stilt-walkers, puppeteers, pugilistic troops, cultural dancers and brass bands. It will take more than seven hours to complete the city circuit.
The celebrations start two days ahead of the procession with a lighting-up ceremony at Xing Gong. 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 somehow triggers 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 on sedan chairs to Xing Gong. It´s always a spectacle to watch the short but colourful procession that morning, escorted by lion and dragon dancers with their clashing cymbals and deafening drums.
The festive mood continues over the next three days as throngs of pilgrims and devotees converge at Xing Gong, where they will also enjoy traditional stage shows that feature classic Chinese operas performed in their own dialects.
The highlight of this celebration is the Chingay on the evening of the 21st day, when the deities are brought out on a tour of the city´s main streets. This event is held on such a progressively grand scale that it has also attracted foreign media coverage, including being filmed as documentaries by China´s Teochew Broadcasting Channel.
In the morning of the 22nd day, the deities leave Xing Gong with similar fanfare of drums and cymbals and return to the temple until their annual tour of the city next year.
HISTORY AND HERITAGE
Do you know that the Johor Ku Miao is believed to be the first Chinese temple in the nation to be named after a State? Its rich history dates back to the 1800s, when Johor´s ruler, Temenggong Ibrahim, adopted the kangchu system introduced by Sir Stamford Raffles in Singapore. When pepper and gambir cultivation became widespread, Chinese immigrants moved to Johor Baru to develop plantations.
Settlers from the Teochew, Hainanese, Hakka, Cantonese and Hokkien clans came to Johor Baru not only with their culture and farming skills, but also their brand of justice, gangsterism and vice. After a period of anarchy, the clans finally agreed to surrender their secret society activities.
History records that the Ngee Heng kongsi or society leader played a significant role in helping Temenggong Ibrahim settle the unrest in Muar, and in 1873 this kongsi was legalised by Sultan Abu Bakar when he became Temenggong.
This kongsi was also assigned to take charge of Chinese immigrant community affairs. When Johor became part of the Unfederated Malay States under the British colonial authority in 1914, the kangchu system was abolished and the Ngee Heng kongsi was disbanded.
As a benevolent ruler, Sultan Abu Bakar encouraged the Chinese community to live in peace and continue the goodwill relationship started by Temenggong Ibrahim.
A group of Chinese community leaders led by Tan Hiok Nee built the Johor Ku Miao temple in the late 19th Century that would house the five deities worshipped by the Chinese clans under one roof, and it was officiated by Sultan Abu Bakar in 1870.
Dubbed the Temple Of Unity, the Johor Ku Miao significantly bears the State name in honour of the Sultan. It is home to 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). With their worship united in one temple, the early Chinese community in Johor Baru prospered as they lived in peace.
To this day, the Johor Ku Miao remains tucked in tranquillity along Jalan Trus even though it is surrounded by urban developments of high-rise buildings, a five-star hotel, shopping malls, government offices and the city´s bustling traffic.
Pride of JB´s Chinese community
THIS pulsating parade is an annual tourist attraction in Johor Baru and is recognised as the Best Domestic Event in the 2009 Johor Tourism Awards.
A photo exhibition of past processions was held at Xing Gong, with photos offered for sale to raise funds for charity.
The Johor Ku Miao temple is open to visitors daily from 7.30pm to 5.30pm. It´s open from 6am to 6pm on religious festive days, and on the first and 15th day of lunar months.