The Cheung Chau Bun Festival, Hong Kong

Cheung Chau is a small island located 10km southwest of Hong Kong Island and is nicknamed the ‘Dumbbell Island’ due to its unusual shape. Once a year the locals build up to and take part in one of the world’s craziest festivals, The Cheung Chau Bun Festival. Historically men from the island would race up a 60ft tower made of bamboo and edible buns, competing to grab the top buns from the tower. The higher the bun, the better the fortune it would bring to his family. This annual race known as ‘bun snatching’ has become a firm tradition of the little island and attracts over 70,000 visitors each year. The festival known in Hong Kong as Taiping Qingjiao, translated as ‘The Purest Sacrifice Celebrated for Great Peace’, is now the most famous of the Chinese Dajiao (festivals that worship the Gods). It’s a three day event, but the most excitement and the main attraction happens on the third day!

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The History of the Cheung Chau Bun Festival


As with many of the world’s craziest festivals, the origins are not totally clear. Some say that the festival began as a fun and exciting ritual for fishing communities to pray for safety from pirates and that today, the religious background has been largely forgotten and the festival is now a showcase of traditional Chinese culture. Some believe that in the 18th century, a band of pirates ransacked the island and only left when the local fishermen carried a statue of the God Pak Tai, through the streets and that today, people dress up as deities in order to drive out the evil spirits the pirates had brought along. (Photo credit: Hi Vietnam)


It is most likely that the rituals began with a plague that devastated the island of Cheung Chau in the late Qing dynasty, during the late 1600s. The islanders, Taoists, built an altar in front of the Pak Tai Temple and prayed for the God of the sea, Pak Tai, to drive off the evil spirits besieging the island. They paraded Godly statues through the narrow lanes of their village and asked the Taoist deities for peace and rest. The plague supposedly ended after this performance and in the modern day, these rituals have become an important part of China’s cultural heritage. This explains where the ideas behind the Piu Sik (floating colours parade) comes from, but it still doesn’t really explain why the locals partake in bun snatching on a 60ft high bamboo tower! Still, while completely crazy, an exciting and fun spectacle has been created!

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Some changes have been made to the festival over the years in the aftermath of utter tragedy in 1978, when the bun snatching ritual was abandoned by government decree following the collapse of the bamboo tower of buns which killed 30 people and injured over 100. The bun tower simply collapsed under the weight of too many climbers and the competition was immediately ceased. Three large traditional ‘Bun Mountains’, constructed from bamboo and covered in buns are still placed in the area in front of the Pak Tai Temple each year. However, following the protest of many Cheung Chau villagers who regarded this celebration as a part of their lives and culture, and possibly more so due to the surprising commercial success of the cartoon movie “My life as McDull”, which recalled the abandoned ceremony, in 2005 the bun snatching event was reinstated. (Photo credit: Adam Hodge)


The modern day bun race is much more health and safety conscious. Bamboo has been put to one side and the 60ft tower is now built from sturdier steel scaffolding. Only 12 specially trained athletes, selected from preliminary competitions, are permitted to climb the ‘Bun Mountain’. The athletes are also required to use mountain climbing equipment for their own safety. In 2007, it was also announced that the buns attached to the competitive tower would be made of plastic to stop them from disintegrating into slippery pulp during the race and to prevent food wastage.

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So the bun snatching competition is perhaps not as thrilling and exciting and as death defying as it has been in the past, but at least you can watch and cheer on the competitors safe in the knowledge that they will all still be alive at the end of it. It is wonderful that they have found a safe way to pay homage to this crazy and bizarre Chinese practice. It must also not be forgotten that the festival is not just about stealing buns, the whole week brings wonder, colour, noise, excitement and thrills among the wacky traditions and practices and is a real spectacle to behold!


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What happens at the festival?


The main event of the Cheung Chau Bun Festival is held on the same day as Buddha's Birthday, for no reason other than it is a national holiday and therefore allows more people to attend. But the preparations begin long before that particular day. Not far from the Pak Tai Temple, you will find the Kwok Kam Kee cake shop, famed for providing tens of thousands of ‘ping on bao’, peace and prosperity buns. Throughout the year, at 2pm every day, you are able to buy one of these sweet, white buns from Kwok Kam Kee, but in the days leading up to the festival, it is pretty much all they bake. Completely vegetarian, they are made from just flour, sugar and water and steam cooked. They come in three flavours; sesame, lotus and red bean paste. Traditionally, the buns are stamped with the Chinese character for peace in edible red paste, and they are blessed, ready for the rituals.


For three days during the festival, the island and the inhabitants of Cheung Chau become strictly vegetarian. You will not find any meat or animal products on the island, including eggs, for the duration of the three day festival. Butchers take a few days holiday and restaurants serve only rice and vegetarian dishes, some even close. McDonalds is also on board with the tradition, swapping beef burgers and chicken nuggets for veggie burgers made from mushrooms.

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As a visitor, you can spend the quieter days at the beginning of the festival exploring the island, resting on the beaches, trying the delicacies at the Kwok Kam Kee bakery and viewing the mountains of buns in relative peace before the swarms of visitors descend upon the island for the main event. There will be plenty to do, be assured, with various dragon dances and Chinese opera performances regaling the island. Observe religious services, watch the island prepare the Pak Tai Temple and its surrounding areas and delight yourselves with healthy vegetarian food.


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On the third day of the festival, the real fun begins. The ‘Piu Sik' procession, translated as the ‘Floating Colours’ parade begins at the Pak Tai Temple at 2pm and is often said to be the best part of the festival. Different local communities arrange their own colourful floats, some perform lion dances, some dragon dances and apparently floating children mesmerise their audience with their colourful costumes. Effigies of Tao deities are created and also join the parade. Pak Tai, ‘God of the Sea’, leads the parade as he has the power to bestow smooth sailing for fishing boats as well as providing good catches for their crews. He is closely followed by Tin Hau, ‘Goddess of the Seas’ and protector of fishermen and boat people. She is celebrated for providing warnings of imminent storms and for saving countless lives from wreckages. Then there is Kuan Yin, ‘Goddess of Mercy’ with her tranquil and compassionate smile, and lastly Hung Hsing, the terrifying ‘God of the South’, with his menacing head-dress, unkind face, bushy black beard and stave, ready to chastise all enemies.


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The floating children are the real stars of the show though, and parents consider if a great honour for their children to be a part of the parade. They dress up as legendary and modern day heroes and are suspended above the crown on the tips of swords or paper fans, creating a seemingly magical display. The mechanics of what appears to be levitation are very clever; the young performers sit on small steel seats concealed under their costumes which are attached to moving floats and the steel rods beneath their seats create the relic on which they appear to stand, such as the sword or the paper fan. All of this illusionary is accompanied by an unapologetic swarm of noise from drums and gongs as the collection of Chinese art and dance parade around the town and back to the temple. The whole process takes two hours.


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As night falls, visitors congregate around the front of the Pak Tai Temple where there are displays of Chinese dance and opera to entertain the masses and at 10pm, the ticket give-away begins. Admission to see the bun climb is free, but space is limited, so as the ticket vendors emerge, crowds swarm to become the more fortunate visitors to get up close to the competitive bun tower for the main event of the day. At 11.45pm, a paper effigy of the ‘King of the Ghosts’ is set ablaze and enormous incense sticks are lit. At the stroke of midnight, the 12 chosen athletes scramble up the man made, fake bun, steel scaffold mountain with the hope of seizing the highest bun. The days and weeks building up to this event are over in a mere 3 minutes! Following the competition, the real buns are harvested and distributed to the villagers and visitors, who, pleased to be sharing in the island’s good fortune, rejoice and party late into the nights.


Watch this short video from Coconuts TV to see what it's all about!


Where?

The festival takes place on the dumbbell shaped island of Cheung Chau, 10km southwest of Hong Kong Island.

When?

The festival’s main event falls on the same day as Buddha’s Birthday each year. In 2016, it falls on the 14th May, but festivities begin on the 11th May.

How much does it cost?

Excluding your journey to the island, and your scramble for a ticket to the bun climbing competition, it is free to attend the festival.

What time does the event begin?

The ‘Piu Sik’ procession through the town begins at 2pm and the bun climbing competition happens at midnight.

Tell me about the island of Cheung Chau.

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The central part of the island, where the main town is, is well developed with shops, restaurants and houses. The lanes are narrow though, so only small motorised trucks called ‘village vehicles’ are the only transport available. There are even specially designed mini fire engines, ambulances and police cars for use on the island. Traditionally, the island was the hub of the fishing industry and there are still fishing fleets working from the harbour, however in recent years, the island has become a major tourist attraction, offering a mixture of sandy swimming beaches, seafood cafés and traditional Chinese culture.


There are numerous temples on the island which are worth a visit, the most prominent being the Pak Tai Temple from where the bun festival originates. The temple was originally built in 1783, but was then demolished and rebuilt in 1989. At the main entrance, there are four stone sculptures of lions playing a ball game, two of these lions have balls in their mouths. Legend says that unmarried girls who can remove the balls will eventually marry a prince. Inside, before the altar, are statues of two generals named “Thousand Miles Eye” and “Favourable Wind Ear”. Together, they are said to be able to hear and see everything.

The island also offers two small, but beautiful main beaches, Tung Wan Beach and Kwun Yam Beach, the latter being where Hong Kong’s first Olympic medallist, Lee Lai Shan trained to become a windsurfer. Unsurprisingly, many water sports are offered at Kwun Yam Beach and it is the perfect spot to take leisurely walks. You can find a formal monument to Lee Lai Shan in the children’t playground on Tung Wan Beach and an unofficial monument beside the “Windsurfer Café” which is owned by her uncle, situated between the two beaches. Tung Wan Beach is also home to one of the declared monuments of Hong Kong, a 3000 year old rock carving, located beneath the Warwick Hotel, found by geologists in 1970.

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Also worth visiting is the Cheung Po Tsai Cave, just a 10 minute walk from the Sai Wan Tin Hau Temple. This cave was allegedly the hiding place of the infamous 19th century pirate, Cheung Po Tsai who was active along the Guangdong coastal area during the Qing Dynasty and is labelled as China’s answer to Robin Hood. He had a following of 50,000 people and possessed a fleet of over 600 ships. He eventually surrendered to the Chinese government in 1810 and became a captain and later a colonel in the Qing imperial navy, spending the rest of his life helping the government fight other pirates.


Just to add some more ridiculous to the island, you can also take a walk on the Cheung Chau Mini Great Wall. The trail is only 850 metres long and was constructed in 1997 by the Home Affairs Department as part of the Cheung Chau Family Trail. It’s name was given from the line of granite railings which looks similar to the Great Wall of China. The trail passes by a variety of specially shaped rocks including the Loaf Rock, the Rock of Ringing Bell, the Eagle Rock, the Human Head Rock and the Rock of Skull.

Speaking of the ridiculous, a little piece of trivia for you. Just after the millennium, a spate of suicides involving burning charcoal (similar to inert gas asphyxiation), took place inside rental holiday homes on the island. The media soon dubbed the island “Death Island” and stories of apparitions soon spread around the island and as far as Hong Kong. In 2005, a local councillor, Lam Kit-Sing proposed a ‘suicide theme-park’ to be built to capitalise on the island’s now macabre reputation. Fortunately, the plans were quickly ridiculed and subsequently rejected and soon after, the suiceides tailed off.

Get me to Cheung Chau.