Festivals in Singapore
Modern Singapore is well-known to be a society where a hybrid of cultures and communities of different faiths and beliefs coexist in harmony. This rich and vibrant multicultural heritage of Singapore is celebrated through her many diverse festivals, spread over the calendar year.
Singapore’s Immigrant History in Brief
In the 19th century, Singapore blossomed from an island settlement into an important trading port in the archipelago, attracting an influx of immigrants within Asia and beyond. After long sea-tossed journeys, many of these immigrants would give thanks to their gods for watching over them and providing safe passage. Eventually, they built their respective places of worship to give thanks and as a place to gather with fellow countrymen to practice their faith.
This explains the many places of worship dotted along Telok Ayer Street. With its name meaning "water bay" in Malay, this street used to hug the coastline of Singapore, and was the landing point of migrants looking to start life anew here. Today, Telok Ayer Street houses several religious institutions across different faiths and has the honour of being the street with the largest number of National Monuments in Singapore – six.
From this immigrant history, festivals in Singapore are often based on culture or faith, and the celebrations of these festivals are a reminder of our history and the multicultural society we have today.
Lunar New Year
The biggest and longest festive period for the Chinese community in Singapore begins on the first day of the first month in the Chinese lunar calendar, ending 15 days later. Preparations for the festivities however, begin much earlier with the shopping for New Year goodies like Nian Gao (Chinese New Year Cake), Bak Kwa (dried savoury sweetmeat) and new clothes, amongst other items. It is a time where homes undergo their annual spring cleaning, and families gather for reunion dinners. Chinatown, bustling with festivity and street light-ups, shines in red and orange hues to signal the arrival of the Lunar New Year.
Devotees make their offerings on the eve of Lunar New Year at the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple along Waterloo Street. (c. 2015. Image from ghettosingapore.com)
The Singapore River Hong Bao Special Show was started in 1987 as a grassroots initiative to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year through festive activities held along the Singapore River. The show developed into an annual week-long event to coincide with the Lunar New Year period. This was the 1992 edition, which celebrated the Year of the Monkey. The main attraction was a five-storey high Monkey God posing atop a float. (c. 1992. Image from National Museum of Singapore)
The Chingay Parade is an annual procession held during the Lunar New Year. It was officially inaugurated in Singapore in 1973 by the People’s Association to add excitement to the festive season after firecrackers were banned. Although it was intended to be a Chinese street festival, it eventually evolved into a multi-ethnic extravaganza. (c. 1970s-1980s. Image from National Museum of Singapore.)
Hari Raya Puasa
Hari Raya Puasa is a celebration held on the first day of Syawal, marking the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and prayer. It is a time of forgiveness within the Muslim community and a time for the strengthening of bonds amongst relatives and friends. New clothes, decorated houses and exchange of invitations between friends and relatives commemorate Hari Raya Puasa. The Hari Raya Light-Up at Geylang Serai is one of the biggest highlights of the festival, with colourful lights stretching over miles of foods and baju kurong (Malay traditional outfit) stalls at the bustling Ramadan bazaar.
The Ramadan bazaar at Geylang Serai. (c. 2015. Image from ghettosingapore.com)
View of temporary food stalls set up along Bussorah Street during the Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and prayer. (c. 1982. Image from National Museum of Singapore)
A Hari Raya Aidilfitri card featuring Cathay-Keris film actress, Mariam. She is a successful actress who starred in many films such as Aloha (1950), Aladdin (1952) and Abu Hasan Penchuri (1955). She is also the mother of Malay film actor Bat Latiff and famous Malay singer Rahimah Rahim. (c. 1960s. 2007-55198. Image from National Museum of Singapore)
Deepavali, also known as the Festival of Lights, is one of the most important festivals celebrated by Hindus. It marks the victory of Lord Krishna over King Narakasura and celebrates the triumph of good over evil and light conquering darkness. The streets of Little India, one of the oldest enclaves in Singapore, are typically decorated in fashion and lit with bright festive colours. Festive bazaars and cultural activities pop up throughout the precinct, and the temples along Serangoon Road are filled with devotees.
A postcard depicting Deepavali in Little India. (c. 1980s. Image from National Museum of Singapore)
Christmas in Singapore is synonymous with the Christmas Light-Up along Orchard Road, which draws thousands of visitors to its festive street lighting, picturesque themed sets and fanciful Christmas trees put up by shopping malls. Some indulge in Christmas gift shopping while others prepare the traditional Christmas dinner for family and friends. Christmas is also a spiritual period as prayers and choral groups fill up churches around Singapore.
Night-time view of Christmas decorations along Orchard Road at the Scotts Road end. (c. mid 1980s. Image from National Museum of Singapore)
Night-time view of the Centrepoint, Orchard Point and Orchard Plaza shopping centres along Orchard Road with Christmas decorations. (c. mid-late 1980s. Image from National Museum of Singapore)
Hari Raya Haji
Also known as the Festival of Sacrifice, Hari Raya Haji marks the end of the Haj, or the annual holy pilgrimage to Mecca and is celebrated by Muslims worldwide. Muslims traditionally gather in mosques for the customary congregational prayers while volunteers carry out the Korban ritual at nominated mosques. Lambs and sheeps are sacrificed with the meat being packed and distributed among the less fortunate. This ritual is symbolic of Prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his own flesh and blood for God.
Devotees and volunteers helping out at the meat distribution on Hari Raya Haji at Sultan Mosque. (c. 2013. Image from ghettosingapore.com)
Mid Autumn Festival
Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the more significant festivals on the Chinese lunar calendar and is extremely popular with children because of the colourful lanterns and delicious mooncakes associated with the celebrations. Held on the 15th day of the eighth month on the Chinese lunar calendar, the streets of Chinatown are lit up in splendid colours and gigantic lantern displays. Chinese cultural groups also perform at community areas where moon appreciation parties are held.
The finale performance at the Mid-Autumn Festival Light-Up Ceremony in Chinatown. (c. 2015. Image from ghettosingapore.com)
This colourful mooncake box packaging from Nam Thong Restaurant has an illustration of “Emperor Tang Ming visiting the Moon Palace”. The mooncake is a Chinese pastry eaten traditionally during the Mid Autumn Festival. (c. mid 20th century. Image from National Museum of Singapore)
This mooncake mould is made of hardwood. The four motifs seen her are the Chinese characters for 花好月圆, signifying a beautiful time of flowers blossoming under the full moon. (c. 1970s. Image from National Museum of Singapore)
Pongal is a harvest festival originating from South India, where agriculture is a primary means of a livelihood among the people. It welcomes the beginning of Thai, the tenth Tamil month. Pongal is a period of thanksgiving to nature for its bountiful harvest. Rice is traditionally cooked and offered to deities as offerings and to seek blessings. Every year, a Pongal bazaar is held at Campbell Lane where festival goodies and offerings such as the Indian sugar cane, ginger and turmeric plants and milk pots can be purchased.
A scene at the Pongal bazaar along Campbell Lane. (c. 2015. Image from ghettosingapore.com)
Thaipusam is one of the biggest visual spectacles in Singapore that takes place on a 4.5 km stretch between Serangoon Road and Tank Road. A traditional highlight of the celebration is an arduous foot procession where devotees carry milk pots or kavadis (15 to 20 kg structures made of wood or steel) pierced to their body. Kavadi bearers are usually cheered on from the starting point at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple by families and friends with prayers and chants until the finishing point atSri Thendayuthapani Temple. The arduous walk of faith is held at the fullest moon in the tenth month of the Hindu calendar. This festival attracts thousands of bystanders to gather along Serangoon Road as volunteers hand out food and drinks along the route.
The Thaipusam procession along Selegie Road. (c. 2015. Image from ghettosingapore.com)
Hindu devotees carry kavadis, semi-circular structures made of steel or wood, on their shoulders with hooks, needles and spikes piercing their bodies as a form of self-mortification on their Thaipusam procession from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple to Sri Thendayuthapani Temple. (c. 1970s-1980s. Image from National Museum of Singapore)
This kavadi is a gift from Mr Sathyamurthi Naidu. Decorated with peacock feathers, milk pots and flowers, it is carried on the shoulders of Hindu devotees during Thaipusam. (c. 20th century. Image from Asian Civilisations Museum)
Vesak Day, which commemorates the birth and enlightenment of Buddha, is a key date for Buddhists. On this day, Thousands of Buddhist devotees visit the temples to make merit and give offerings. Some embark on walking and bowing rituals while others give offerings usually consisting of candles, flowers and joss sticks.
A postcard depicting the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery located along 88 Bright Hill Road at Bishan. This temple is well known for its ‘Three Steps, One Bow’ ritual, an expression of repentance performed by Buddhist devotees on the eve of Vesak Day. (c. 1980s. Image from National Museum of Singapore)