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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It all makes for a playful diversion – and a snapshot of the quirky culture that comprises the Kong.
For more information on the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, click here.
For more information on Cheung Chau Island, click here.