The amazing acrobatics displays made famous by the Straits Chinese of Penang are now a world renowned cultural performance.
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Chingay is a unique street performance involving the balancing of a large flag draped on a giant flag pole on various parts of the body. The flags, 25 feet in length, are usually triangular in shape while the length of the flag pole itself ranges from 25 to 35 feet. Flag poles of up to 40 feet have known to be used in some performances, but are normally reserved for the more adept performers of this art.
Although the practice of carrying large flags can be traced back to China, the acrobatic performance associated with modern Chingay was first performed in 1919 as part of a Chinese cultural celebration in Penang. The Straits Chinese of the city held a procession featuring these flag bearers during a festival honouring the Goddess of Mercy. A local newspaper ran a story of the procession dubbing it a Chingay Procession. The anglicised form of the Hokkien word chin yi, meaning true art, the name has stuck ever since. There were only two more processions featuring Chingay after the first: in 1926 in honour of another Chinese deity, and in 1957, to commemorate the centenary of the City Council of Georgetown.
These initial Chingay processions were the precursor to two annual parades, the original Chingay Parade held in Penang in 1966, and the Singapore Chingay Parade, which began in 1973. Although the Singapore version is better publicised, any visitor expecting acrobatic giant flag performances will be disappointed as the organisers intepret the word Chingay rather liberally. The parade does not usually feature any Chingay performance, being more of a glitzy event influenced by modern trends.
The Penang Chingay Parade, however, features the actual Chingay, and emphasizes flag bearers and Malaysian cultural performances, including the lion and dragon dances, along with local drum displays, courtesy of the Indian procession participants. Troupes of Chingay teams compete during the procession, trying their best to outdo each other and impress the crowd with various acrobatic displays and choreographed moves. At the end of the procession, the winning Chingay team is announced. This tradition of competition during the procession finally came to an end in 2008, and since then, the competition has been separated from the procession, and held as a full event on its own right.
In an effort to promote Chingay, the Penang Chingay Association began weekly practice sessions at the Esplanade in Penang in 2010. These practice sessions allow visitors to catch a glimpse of this unique performance without having to wait for the parade, and the performers are more than willing to let the adventurous and curious have a go balancing those tall giant flags. The practice sessions have also been highlighted as a pit stop in the Amazing Race, where racers were required to do a little Chingay themselves.