Nice Buns! The Kong at Its Quirkiest – The Cheung Chau Bun Festival

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Festivals, Neighborhoods

Scrambling up a 14-meter tower of ‘lucky’ buns? Parading around deified children propped up on tall poles? On a drizzly May afternoon, these were just a couple of the offbeat attractions at the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, one of Hong Kong’s quirkiest celebrations.

'Lucky' buns affixed to a tower at the Cheng Chau Bun Festival

‘Lucky’ buns affixed to a tower at the Cheung Chau Bun Festival

The Piu Sik (Floating Colours) Parade, during which children appear to 'float' through the narrow streets of Cheng Chau island

The Piu Sik (Floating Colours) Parade, during which children appear to ‘float’ through the narrow streets of Cheung Chau island

As with many of Hong Kong’s festivals, this one finds its roots in historical events. About a century ago during the late Qing Dynasty, a plague broke out across diminutive Cheung Chau, an island about an hour west of Hong Kong Island by ferry. Employing Taoist rituals, the locals appealed to the god of the sea, Pak Tai, and paraded around statues of deities to ward off the evil spirits believed to have inhabited the island.

Customs here run deep, and thus, similar rituals persist today, amidst lion dances, traditional opera performances, the heady beating of drums, and innumerable prayers and offerings to the gods.

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Lion dances are performed during the parade and throughout the Bun Festival

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Visitors pay tribute at the Pak Tai Temple on Cheung Chau

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Fat incense sticks burn slowly and fill the air outside Pak Tai Temple with their smoky perfume

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Traditional Chinese opera is performed during the Bun Festival

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Lions storm Pak Tai Temple on Cheung Chau

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Even the lions take time to go to temple, at Pak Tai on Cheung Chau

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Deities tower over a youthful local on Cheung Chau

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Paper mache replica deities watch over events and offerings during the Cheung Chau Bun Festival

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Making offerings to the gods on Cheung Chau

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The paparazzi line up to shoot…

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…lanterns and food and tea offerings to the deities

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The fire burns bright in receipt of joss paper and other offerings on Cheung Chau

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Possibly the most bizarre event at this festival is the Piu Sik (Floating Colors) Parade, during which children dressed as deities or characters from Chinese folklore are seemingly propped up on poles and shuffled through the narrow lanes of the island. Look uncomfortable or dangerous? Relax – that disproportionately long costume donned by the child conceals a piu sik, a little contraption on which the ‘tall’ child actually sits. Fake shoes peeking out at the bottom of the costume also help make it appear as if the child is floating in the air.

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A little girl ‘floats’ through the streets of Cheung Chau during the Piu Sik (Floating Colours) Parade

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Post-parade disassembly reveals the trick – a ‘piu sik’ ensconced beneath a long skirt, that seats the child on top and allows her to seem to ‘float’

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Some of the brightly colored decor on the parade rods, speaking to the characters represented by the children

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Apparently the gods like prawns…

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Staff doing the hard work of supporting the Piu Sik parade floats take a moment to spectate the spectators

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It’s all just a bit odd. And mind you, not one of the children I saw in the upper position on these floats seemed all too happy about their role in the procession. Let’s hope they received some treats (or buns) at the end of their ordeal!

Speaking of buns..the namesake event at this festival entails a bun scrambling competition (yes, you read that correctly!), during which participants vie for the title of Queen or King of the Buns by climbing up a 14-meter (~50 feet) tower of 9000 (faux) ‘lucky’ buns, collecting as many as they can on the ascent, especially those near the top which are ‘worth’ the highest number of points. After about 3 minutes close to the midnight hour, the whole bout of madness concludes. While the official rationale for the fake buns is to avoid wasting food, the real reason is related to a prior collapse in the 1970’s during which competitors were seriously injured while attempting to climb the real deal. Now the tower is also built with multiple other fail-safes.

The tower of (faux) 'lucky' buns, up which competitors scramble to become Queen or King of the Buns (yes, seriously)

The tower of (faux) ‘lucky’ buns, up which competitors scramble to become Queen or King of the Buns (yes, seriously)

I have to be honest – I’m pretty die-hard when it comes to observing interesting rituals and events, but I couldn’t quite justify lingering until midnight for this, mostly because I couldn’t bear the thought of fighting the (albeit mostly polite) crowds to board the late-night ferry back to the main island. And while I appreciate the ‘safer scramble’, the whole fake tower thing just seems a bit too, well, fake and kitschy. Locals also seem to lightly mock the tower, but that doesn’t stop hundreds upon hundreds of others from sticking around.

Real buns are still to be had, for consumption and gifting – and they appear to cover the island during this festival, in various incarnations containing lotus, sesame, or red bean paste (so much for avoiding food waste!). The traditional red stamp on the steamed buns is usually the Chinese character symbolizing peace.

Buns stamped with the Chinese character for peace dot the multiple towers at the Bun Festival

Buns stamped with the Chinese character for peace dot the multiple towers at the Bun Festival

Agoraphobics will likely want to avoid this roughly week-long celebration, especially on parade and bun scrambling day, as thousands descend upon Cheung Chau. However, it’s possible to stake out a decent observation spot at least for the parade on one of the narrow alleys even if arriving late, and the rest of the island offers pleasant, relatively easy walks that are more removed from the crowds – with little surprises along the way like open farmland, slightly eery abandoned houses with grand rooftop vistas, caves, lovely waterfront views, and a casual beachfront bar or two (more on this another time).

And of course, the promenade near the ferry pier is lined with Cheung Chau’s famed seafood shacks for a very casual and inexpensive alfresco meal. To be objective, better seafood can be had elsewhere, but squatting at one of these shacks still makes for a memorable hang with friends or family.

The famed seafood shacks lining the pier on Cheng Chau

The famed seafood shacks lining the pier on Cheung Chau draw huge crowds

It all makes for a playful diversion – and a snapshot of the quirky culture that comprises the Kong.

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Incense coils with prayer tags dangle from the ceiling of Pak Tai Temple on Cheung Chau

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Fishing boats dot the pier of Cheung Chau

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Colorful tile murals add texture to Pak Tai Temple

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A drummer awaits visitor offerings at Pak Tai Temple

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Young admirers absorb the scale of the bun towers at the Cheung Chau Bun Festival

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Giant incense sticks peel away as their smoke rises into the air outside Pak Tai Temple

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Pampered dogs are among the visitors during the Cheung Chau Bun Festival

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For more information on the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, click here.

For more information on Cheung Chau Island, click here.

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Globetrotter based in Hong Kong, travel and street photographer, Getty Images contributor, award-winning blogger of WanderFong.com - seeking true beauty in travel and life!

18 thoughts on “Nice Buns! The Kong at Its Quirkiest – The Cheung Chau Bun Festival”

  1. Ann says:

    Loved your post! Great photos capturing all the fun and rituals to be had at this bun festival. Wish I had been there to share the experience!

    Like

    • Thanks so much! No shortage of fun festivals here in HK, that’s for sure. I’m glad to be able to share the experience. Next time, maybe you will be able to observe for yourself 🙂

      Like

  2. Sumita says:

    Beautiful pics! It may be odd, but it sounds fascinating to learn about other cultures and the history behind them. Thanks for sharing!

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    • Thanks so much, Sumita! Indeed, odd in a very fun and positive way. It is a privilege to be so close now to such interesting and different (for me) celebrations

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  3. Great post. I miss this event every year as I’m in Canada avoiding the heat and crowds. But your photos bring me right back. The scramble up the tower for the buns is craaaazy!

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    • Thanks, Peter! I figured as much, based on your recent post (lovely, by the way!). I don’t blame you at all, the heat and humidity seem to have hit here actually a bit early? Hope you enjoy the rest of your time in Canada. I used to hit Toronto all the time when I was in grad school in Buffalo, but unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to see much beyond that except for one quick trip to Montreal.

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    • Thank you, and thank you! I think I knew that and must have slacked off when writing. Making the change immediately, much appreciated. ‘Long Island’ – makes me chuckle a bit, since I moved from New York. Long Island there is a very different place altogether 🙂

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  4. Thanks for sharing! I came to the US when I was young,and always felt I was missing out on so many Asian traditions. It’s fun to “live” some of them through your photos and descriptions.

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  5. whoa. i have never heard of this festival before. that picture of a giant incense.. never seen one that big either! your photos are captivating as usual, but the writing is what really drives the reader to understand the setting and tone of the event. great post!

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    • Thanks so much! It’s been a joy to rediscover the power of writing (in addition to photographY), and it’s reassuring to know that some, like you, appreciate the extra dimension it offers. Thank you for reading, as always!

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  6. Great article! I saw the bun towers in the History Museum in HK but didn’t know the story behind them.

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  7. Pingback: The Visual Feast of Hong Kong: Through the Lens of Hong Kong Fong, Part 2 | pundit from another planet

  8. Pingback: [PHOTO] Piu Sik Floating Colours Parade | pundit from another planet

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