Chingay: The Idea of a Parade
by Carolyn Oei and Marc Nair, 17 Feb 2019
If you managed to score a ticket to see the Chingay Parade at Singapore’s F1 Pit Building this past weekend, you might have actually attended it and had some fun. There was, after all, a soap-bubble gun in the goody bag.
We declined the goody bag.
According to the People’s Association (PA), the creators and organisers of Chingay, “[t]he word Chingay…means the art of costume and masquerade in the Hokkien dialect.”
Chingay started out in 1973 as a street parade as part of Lunar New Year celebrations, but has since turned into something of a propaganda Mardi Gras.
And quite a turn from its heritage as a street parade – which many Singaporeans would remember having witnessed for free as children – Chingay is now a closed and ticketed sit-down affair. Minus the military tattoo, Chingay could forgivably be mistaken for a National Day Parade (NDP), except that the latter continues to be free-of-charge.
All the elements of an NDP are on display during Chingay, most notably, the CMIO narrative. It would seem that Singapore’s racial mix can very easily be reduced to Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others. The reductive – and problematic - nature of this sort of compartmentalisation was apparent during the Chingay 2019 parade that we watched.
With the Chinese representation, we think they were going for a classical Tang dynasty feel. Dancing ladies in tight bodices, men in sleeveless tunics and sashes around their waists looking sturdy and strong, not unlike sedan-chair bearers at a wedding. It was hard to tell if they were Mandarin, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka or even Hainanese. But it ought not to have made a difference because Chinese ethnicity and culture are homogeneous, no?
Just as Malay ethnicity and culture are?
The Malay contingent seemed to be trying to get all of Malay-ness onto one float, a catch-all representation that seemed to highlight only the Bugis seafaring community. We couldn’t help but compare this to the visiting Indonesian contingent that was a smorgasbord of costumes representing all manner of culture and tradition.
Then, there was the Indian representation, spotlighted by a strongly South Indian Tamil vibe.
The Eurasian contingent was represented by the Eurasian Association. 25 dancers in all. It was such a small part of the parade that we missed them completely. It is perhaps akin to how Eurasians are often marginalised in Singapore.
The participants in the parade seemed to be made up mostly of young people and all the aunties in Singapore. Even the elderly were roped in. They looked about as elated as people who had just checked their Toto draw results and didn’t win anything.
So, Chingay might have been wanting in content, but it certainly wasn’t wanting in special effects. Fireworks, firecrackers (otherwise illegal in Singapore), lights, sound and pageantry. The PA’s annual reports don’t give a breakdown of costs and an Internet search for “how much does Chingay cost” throws up zero results.
Costs aside, how this year’s title, “Dreams Funtasia”, connected with Singapore’s bicentennial was another question that went unanswered. The Singapore Bicentennial is essentially a celebration of 200 years of the white man landing on our shores and claiming us as theirs. Yes, we are celebrating our colonisation.
The bicentennial segment was supposed to be a painting co-created by “three Singaporean multi-disciplinary artists of different races” (see the photos above). It was digitised and expanded into a 270m-long artwork. On the Chingay website, it is described as such: “[T]he painting illustrates the history of Singapore that dates back to 200 years and before, as a humble fishing village; to the present-day modern, progressive multi-ethnic country; to the limitless imagination of our dreams and aspirations for the future.”
In our opinion, the most relevant representation of this “bicentennial edition” of Chingay 2019 was a float co-sponsored by Stamford Catering and lion dancers from the Stamford Dragon Lion Arts and Cultural Troupe.
This continued banging of the multi-ethnic drum is not forward-thinking. It was the British who separated us into ethnic enclaves. They were the originators of CMIO. And by choosing to continue to highlight our differences, we are perpetuating this act of separating. Hardly modern or harmonious behaviour.
Where was the representation of contemporary Singapore? Not the Passion Card or POSBank floats, surely?
Where was the celebration of our innovation? Where were the issues that are important to us as a nation, such as keeping hawker culture alive, sustainable environmental practices, growing our own food sources?
Putting issues such as these front and centre would have made for a meaningful parade of ideas. This would have resonated far more strongly than Chingay the event, which was but an idea of a parade.