Every year in May, a small Hong Kong island that’s ordinarily a fishing village bursts into festive colors. The sound of drums and cymbals fills the air and people take a break from their humdrum lives and plunge into a celebration that lasts four days. This is the Cheung Chau Bun festival held on the Cheung Chau Island in Hong Kong, and it’s a festival like no other.
Legend goes that the island was struck by plague during the reign of the late Qing dynasty (1644-1912). A resident built an altar in front of the Pak Tai temple and the rest of the islanders joined him in his prayers. This was a Taoist ritual, Ta Chiu, and is meant to restore peace and harmony and bring good luck. Pak Tai is considered the God of the North and the patron of fishermen according to Chinese mythology. Figures of Pak Tai and other deities were paraded across the island to ward off “evil spirits”. The plague consequently left the island and its departure was celebrated with much joy. This celebration, along with the parading and praying, became a yearly tradition on the island. So every year, from the 5th to the 9th day of the fourth lunar month according to the Chinese calendar, the Ta Chiu ritual is revived and a celebratory parade takes place on the island. Even though the dates coincide with Buddha’s birthday, this festival is Taoist in nature.
The Heart of It
Every year, thousands of visitors from Hong Kong and abroad throng to Cheung Chau, lured by the unique cultural heritage of the festival and the vibrancy with which it is celebrated. There are operas, dragon dances, lion dances, stalls serving food, drink and souvenirs – all adding to the electric atmosphere. Everything leads up to the last day of the festival, which is when the celebrations hit a frenzied high point.
The island turns vegetarian for three days during the festival. With the influx of tourists and visitors, this tradition was in danger of dying down, but a concentrated effort by the islanders has helped to keep it on. So much so that all seafood eateries refuse to serve anything but vegetarian food during the festival. Even McDonald’s served mushroom patties in their burgers during the festival last year!
The island stays vegetarian up till the morning of the last day of the festival. During the first half of this day, a grand parade takes place on the island. Children dressed as deities, superheroes, even athletes, are held up above the parade on poles so that it appears as if they’re floating over the parade. Families consider it an honor for their children to be chosen for the parade so they train relentlessly to balance on the poles and work on the costumes for weeks before the festival. The parade is a gorgeous sight – a stream of brightly dressed people, costumed children floating above their heads, lion dancers and drummers thrown in between and flanked by stalls showcasing everything from incense to food offerings to the gods. This carnival-like parade is called the Piu Sik or the Floating Colors Parade. In the evening, there is the ritual honoring of the dead. A paper effigy of the King of Ghosts is burnt and buns are distributed amongst the public.
The parade is what attracts visitors to the festival but what really keeps them at the festivities till the wee hours of the next morning is the Bun Scramble. No, that’s not a breakfast item. The buns are undoubtedly the highlight of the Cheung Chau Bun festival, though no one seems to know what their connection to the legend of the festival is. Before the festival starts, bun towers are erected near the Pak Tai temple. These are steel towers covered with plastic buns. At night, races and competitions are held to see which participant gets the most buns from the tower. The winners are awarded prizes with much fanfare.
Originally, the bun towers were made of bamboos and the race was open to all participants. After an accident in 1978, it was banned altogether. But a decade ago, the safer towers were made and participants were limited in terms of number to avoid a repeat of the accident. Now, there are two races – one individual race where participants are decided through heats and the other a team effort where women can also participate. The towers are erected in a soccer field close to the temple and tickets for entry are tough to come by because of the crowds. So if you’re visiting the festival, we’d advise you to get in line at the ticket counter well in advance.
Time.com has included the Cheung Chai bun festival in the list of the World’s top 10 Quirkiest Festivals. And it’s quirky alright – what other festivals can boast of floating children, bun towers and a bun scrambling race? The contrast with glamorous, high-rise Hong Kong is conspicuous. Once you’re at the festival and immersed in the activities, it’s difficult to imagine that a thrumming metropolis is just a short ferry ride away!
Where: Cheung Chau island, Hong Kong. Ferries depart from Central Pier #5, Hong Kong and will take 40 to 60 minutes. (Take the slower ferry – it’s open and you’ll be in for a visual treat.)
When: 19th to 22nd May (22nd May is when the parade and Bun Scrambling Contest will take place)
#ProTip: Complimentary Bun Scrambling Contest tickets will be distributed near the Pak Tai temple on the night of the competition.
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