May 04, 2018

The Cheung Chau Bun Festival: A glimpse into a beautiful Taoist festival

 

Approximately 10 kilometres south-west of Hong Kong is an island known as the "dumbbell island", more famously called Cheung Chau. On this island, between the fifth and ninth days of the fourth lunar month, comes a festival that has increasingly been gaining popularity throughout the years: the Cheung Chau Bun festival.

 

Origins

 

This festival's origin dates back to more than a century ago, during the late Qing Dynasty Era (1644-1911). On the islands of Cheung Chau, a plague had affected the people, and they built an altar in front of the Pak Tai Temple, hoping for the god Pak Tai to drive away the "evil spirits" that affected the island. Apart from this, they also put up statues of deities on the walkways of their villages. The plague eventually did end, and over a century later, these Taoist rituals continue to be performed every year as part of the famous festival!

 

The festival is an important event in Taoism and features children between the ages of four and six dressed in colourful costumes, as gods, where they stand on elevated platforms and are carried around, in the belief that it will scare away evil spirits. This is known as the Piu Sik (Floating Colours) parade.

 

The week-long event features traditional Taoist ceremonies, music, parades, lion dances, drums and the "main event", the Bun Scrambling competition. It's celebrated every year on The Buddha's birthday, a public holiday in Hong Kong. 

 

 

Bun Scrambling competition

 

This is the trademark event of the entire festival. It features tall bamboo poles made into teepee-shaped mountains covered with handmade buns! The competition is said to bring good luck to the person who wins it. These mountains are set up near the Pak Tai Temple, which is the religious centre of the island.

 

On the street sides, you will see colourful stalls with various items of both worship and celebration. Buns are, of course, present as offerings to the gods.

 

On this day, thousands of visitors from Hong Kong and other regions arrive at Cheung Chau. No one knows this better than Martin Kwok, whose bakery in Cheung Chau makes over 10,000 buns per day during the festive season! He claims to sell an average of five to seven thousand buns a day.

 

According to him, there are two kinds of people who buy buns: the older generation, who believe that the buns are good for their health, and the younger generation, who come purely to experience the vibe and atmosphere of the festival. 

 

The practice of climbing the 60-foot bun tower was suspended for quite a while due to safety concerns. However, once safety measures were taken, the practice was reinstated in 2005.

 

 

Rules of the game

 

There are individual and relay competitions. For the singles competition, there are twelve finalists that compete to scramble for buns, aiming to score points within a given time frame. The harder the bun is to reach, the higher the score.

 

With the relay competitions, the rules are even simpler. Teams of three climb the tower to grab specific buns, and the fastest team wins.

 

Contestants who get the most buns within the allotted time win "full pockets of lucky buns".

 

 

When is the Cheung Chau Bun Festival?

 

This year, the Cheung Chau Bun Festival starts on May 19 and ends on May 23. The main day of the festival is on May 22. Here's what the schedule is like on May 22:

 

10:30am: Unicorn Dances and Kung Fu Demos

  2 - 4pm: Traditional Parade

11.30pm: Bun Scrambling Contest

 

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There is even a preliminary Bun Carnival on the weekend prior to the festival. There will be a "practice" bun tower that is set up, giving you a chance to try it out!

 

How to get there

 

It takes 40 to 60 minutes to reach Cheung Chau with ferries every 30 minutes from Central Pier #5. There are two ferry options: the fast, enclosed and air conditioned one, and the slower, open-sided ferry. The latter offers a much more scenic and leisurely journey. Note that ferries can get very crowded during festival season, so think it through before choosing when you want to go.

 

The Pak Tai Temple is a mere 10-minute walk from the Ferry Pier in Cheung Chau. Check the link to First Ferry for their holiday ferry schedule: http://www.nwff.com.hk/public/getitem.php?lang=en&id=31f723ba-6f6b-4291-baf0-7a1849317705&v=2&submenu_num=4

 

 

Even if it's not for the Bun festival, Cheung Chau island is worth visiting at any time in the year. The beautiful street markets, colourful temples, beaches and stunning views make it an integral part of the surrounding islands and the culture of Hong Kong.

 

That being said, the Bun festival is a must-visit, and you can get an insight into the heart and soul of Cheung Chau island and its long cultural history. So why not grab two buns with one reach?!

 

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