Chingay is a cultural performance that originated among the Chinese people in Penang. The signature of Chingay is the carrying of gigantic bamboo flags in street processions. These performances have their roots in Taoist worship. The hoisting of gigantic flags have been recorded as early as 1905, and were performed to appease Taoist deities.
The earliest documented Chingay street procession is said to have taken place in George Town in 1919. It was organised by market traders in celebration of the birthday of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. During the procession, the image of Kuan Yin was paraded through the streets of George Town accompanied by giant 40-feet-tall bamboo flags. Accompanying them were stilt walkers, floats, lion and dragon dances. In as much as honouring the deity, the procession was also organised to seek divine intervention from Kuan Yin to eliminate a plague that had gripped Penang at that time.
One coming up (26 July 2009)
The second Chingay procession in George Town took place in 1926. This was held to celebrate the birthday of Tua Pek Kong, the Taoist God of Prosperity. In between, small-scale processions and Chingay performances were held during feast days of Taoist deities. The third large-scale Chingay procession took place in 1957 in celebration of George Town being granted city status by Queen Elizabeth II. It is said to be the first time that the bearing of Chingay flags was done for a non-religious celebration, and pathed the way for future secular performances.
Flag in the air (26 July 2009)
When the first Pesta Pulau Pinang took place in 1966, Chingay flag procession was part of the programme. At that time, Pesta Pulau Pinang was not yet an annual event, but it offered the public a glimpse of a truly indigenous cultural performance. The Penang Chingay Association can be regarded as the custodian of the art. When the stage government of Penang undertook to stage Pesta Pulau Pinang as an annual trade fair in 1970, Chingay street procession was one of the highlights. By then, it has evolved into an activity geared towards promoting tourism in Penang. While the original religious Chingay flags were 15-meter to 18-meter giants, the cultural Chingay flags were only about 12-meters tall. The shorter flags were more manoeverable, and allowed acrobatic elements to be introduced as a crowd pleaser.
Catching the Chingay flag (26 July 2009)
The first time that Chingay was performed away from Penang was in 1973, when the Chingay troupe of Penang was invited by the Penang stage government to perform at Penang's sister city, Adelaide. In the same year, Chingay troupes were being formed not only in Penang, but elsewhere in Malaysia and Singapore. Partly in response to the ban on firecrackers, the Singapore Chingay procession was organised to bring some cheer to the otherwise dampened mood of Chinese New Year. The parade, from Jalan Besar to Outram Park, was so successful that it gave birth to greater interest in Chingay, not only among the Chinese, but also attraction Indians and Malays. Eventually Chingay troupes from Singapore were performing overseas, including at the Rose Parade in Pasedena, California, completely stealing the thunder from Chingay's home turf of Penang.
Competitors in the National Chingay Championship (26 July 2009)
At the turn of the new millennium, the interest in Chingay was revived in Penang. Over the last years, Chingay performances have been staged regularly. The most popular venue is at Jalan Padang Kota Lama in front of the Town Hall and City Hall. To take the performance to a greater height, an All-Star National Chingay Championship was held there for the first time on Sunday, 26 July, 2008, in conjunction with George Town Heritage Month.
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