THERE is a common saying in Johor that one has not truly celebrated Chinese New Year if he has not witnessed the traditional Chingay procession.
Chingay is a day where the busy streets in the Johor Baru city centre are closed to traffic and come alive from 7pm onwards with joyous music, brightly decorated floats and lively lion and dragon dances.
To those familiar with the Chinese cultures in Johor, Chingay is the day when the deities from the city’s five main dialect clans are brought out for a tour of the city.
It is believed that the parade is held to let the deities, who are housed at the Johor Baru Ancient Temple (Gu Miao or Kuil Kuno) in the city centre for the rest of the year, bless the streets for a prosperous year ahead.
The annual parade, which was given the national heritage status in 2012, is celebrated by thousands of people who throng the city centre and line the streets as the loud and colourful procession passes through the 10km route.
The whole ceremony is usually performed from the 18th to the 22nd day of the Chinese lunar calendar, said the procession’s organising chairman and Ancient Temple chairman Lim Kong Yong.
The ceremony starts off with a symbolic lighting ceremony on the night of the 18th day of the Lunar New Year, where fireworks light up the sky.
This is followed by a street cleansing ritual the next morning, with devotees marching along the procession route on foot and sprinkling the streets with holy water mixed with loose tea leaves, pomelo leaves, salt and raw rice.
“Miniature cymbals and Chinese drums are played to ward off evil spirits and warn them that the deities will be parading the streets soon,” said Lim.
The third day begins with the purification process, where the statues of the deities are wiped and cleaned before being placed in their respective palanquins and carried to a temporary abode in Jalan Ulu Air Molek, called Xing Gong, to be kept overnight.
The fourth day is the highlight of the whole process as it is when the Chingay procession takes place and the iconic five deities – Yuan Tian Shang Di (Teochew), Hong Xian Da Di (Hokkien), Gan Tian Da Di (Hakka), Hua Guang Da Di (Cantonese) and Zhao Da Yuan Shuai (Hainan) – are brought on a tour of the city.
“Those watching the parade for the first time may get a shock when they see the deities’ palanquins being rocked vigorously by devotees who carry them,” Lim said.
He explained that it was the deity’s way of “blessing” the city and devotees would usually put their hands together in respect while shouting “Heng ah!” (prosperity) and “Huat ah!” (good fortune) all along the major roads such as Jalan Yahya Awal, Jalan Ibrahim and Jalan Wong Ah Fook.
The parade kicks off at Xing Gong and usually lasts for at least six hours, as it is past midnight by the time the march ends.
The following day, the deities are brought back to the Ancient Temple located along Jalan Trus, bringing the Chinese New Year festivities to a close for Johoreans.
Back in the 1960s, the three notorious rival underground society clans in the city would call for a truce throughout the Chingay celebrations to unite and pray for good fortune, which shows how important the tradition was to everyone.
P. Devaraj, 65, who owns a sundry shop in the city, said he did not mind the congestion and watched the parade every year.
“I always tell my children this is an occasion where the deities bless the city and we, as people of the land, will be blessed too,” he said.
Assistant manager Shahidah Rahmi, 34, who has attended the parade for the past 10 years, said she enjoyed watching the different and creative floats each year.
She said people should not mix religion with culture, and be open to each other’s cultures as there is always something new to learn.
After earning the national cultural heritage for an intangible celebration, the Ancient Temple’s next step is to make the ceremony a globally recognised event.
Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz has pledged to direct the cultural department under his ministry to give full cooperation in ensuring that the event achieves its goals.