Tan Lii Chong spends his weekdays teaching at Singapore Polytechnic’s Business School, but for several Saturday mornings each year, the 52-year-old becomes a student again.
At the Japanese School Singapore’s Changi campus, Lii Chong was part of a 400-strong dance contingent rehearsing for this year’s Chingay street parade, where they mimicked the traditional movements of Japanese fishermen in an item called ‘Soran Bushi - Riding the Waves of Life.’
Lii Chong, who performed in the Chingay parade for the 14th time this year, calls it an ‘annual reunion with fellow friends from the Japanese Association of Singapore (JAS). He was among the inaugural batch of Chingay dancers recruited by the JAS in 2003, and has stayed on because he enjoys the company and exercise.
“I worked in Japan many years ago in the fishery industry and when I came back to Singapore, I didn’t want to lose touch with the Japanese language and community,” says Lii Chong, who also takes part in other activities organised by the JAS, such as cooking classes, speech presentations and bi-weekly Japanese Speaking Corner sessions.
Besides these activities, Lii Chong enjoys learning more about Japanese culture through the dance performance. Soran Bushi, which is in line with this year’s Chingay theme of water, tells the story of fishermen in Hokkaido harvesting life from the sea.
Lii Chong is not the only one in a role reversal. Dance instructor, Shizuka Misaka, is part of the contingent’s coaching team, but she also learnt about local culture by interacting with the 100 or so Singaporean participants during the 4 months of dance practices.
“I work at a multinational company, which is very culturally diverse. Attending Chingay practices gives me a chance to meet and interact with more local people,” says Shizuka, an avid salsa dancer and assistant choreographer for the performance.
Shizuka, who moved to Singapore a year and a half ago to work at a medical insurance company, enjoys the cultural diversity here and loves hawker centres as much as any Singaporean.
“In Japan we usually bring bentos from home for lunch, but the food at the hawker centres such as chicken rice and laksa are very varied and interesting. I also enjoy trying food from different cultures such as Vietnamese and Thai,” she says.
Besides hawker centres, Shizuka found opportunities to visit new parts of Singapore during Chingay rehearsals, such as the Formula One (F1) pit building where she learnt about the annual F1 night race held in Singapore.
“The Chingay parade gave me the chance to discover new spaces, and not just spend time at work and home,” says Shizuka, who lives near Tiong Bahru.
Although she is new to Singapore and participated in the Chingay parade for the first time, Shizuka has already become an unofficial “Chingay ambassador” in her office.
“When I told my colleagues that I was dancing in the Chingay, I was surprised to find that some of them did not know about the parade,” she says. “Even for Singaporeans, some of them have only seen short segments of it on television.”
But they were keen to find out more, and asked her if they could attend the performance, says Shizuka, who invited them to the parade. She also told them more about Chingay, which was first held in 1973 and has grown into the largest street parade in Asia.
While earlier versions of the parade displayed aspects of Chinese culture such as lion dances, martial arts and street opera, it has since taken on a multicultural flavour. The 2017 parade featured performers from South Korea, Cambodia and Indonesia putting up joint items with locals.
Mother-and-son pair Kanami and Rento Arai, who took part in the performance together, have also shared the experience with the rest of their family.
Last year, the family of four caught a glimpse of the parade from afar, and were enthralled by the upbeat music and attractive costumes of the performers. So when younger son Rento volunteered to dance in the parade with six of his classmates from the Japanese School Singapore, Kanami decided to join in as well.
At nine, Rento and his schoolmates were the youngest performers in the troupe, but they took their performance seriously. “He practised very hard,” says Kanami, a housewife and mother of two who has been living in Singapore for two years, adding that her son learned about Japanese and Singaporean culture at the same time.
This year, her husband, who works in a trading company, got to watch the Chingay parade again — from the spectator stands this time.
Kanami says: “It is a very special experience to be able to perform in a Singapore parade. I am happy that our family is here to take part in it together and understand Singapore better.”