The Cheung Chau Bun Festival is one of the liveliest and quirkiest annual events which takes place on a small island not far away from Hong Kong.
During the 4-days celebration, you will see the Cheung Chau Island come alive as its residents gather as a strong community to host an array of spectacular traditional Chinese activities leading up to the prime event, which kicks off on the penultimate day.
Hopping onto the ferry from Central Pier 5, we sailed swiftly past the Victoria Harbour and towards Cheung Chau island. The 45-minute journey felt a lot quicker than it sounded whilst we chattered away on the upper deck. It wasn’t long until we could see the burst of colours stretching along the waterfront in the distance, followed by the distinctive loud beatings of gongs and drums when we finally arrived. As the boatmen lowered the drawbridge, we were amongst the hundreds of people who poured out onto the island to join the colourful festivity!
The Floating Colours Parade (“Piu Sik”)
So how did this firm tradition come about? According to the legend’s, many locals believe that it all began with the plague which devastated the island of Cheung Chau in the late Qing Dynasty. In a desperate plea, the local Taoists built an altar and paraded an image of Pak Tai, “God of the Sea”, through the narrow lanes of their village to drive off all the evil spirits besieging the island. Through their efforts, the plague soon subsided and the restless spirits of the victims were placated at last.
Amongst these powerful deities, the most eye-opening sight is the “Floating Children” during which young performers are dressed up as mythological deities and Chinese folklore. They are hoisted high up on stilts in an attempt to create an illusion of “floating” through the parade. With temperatures soaring to 32°C that day, we were sweating so much just as spectators so we could only imagine what it was like for all the participants of the parade!
With some time to spare until the grand contest later on in the evening, we decided to explore the labyrinth of alleyways and the abundant food stalls scattered throughout the island. Although the inhabitants of Cheung Chau become strictly vegetarian during the festival, we managed to devour (yet again!) on the many famous street snacks; our favourite being the Mango Slush and Twirly Potato Chips on a stick. Our leisure stroll soon led us to the sandy shores of Tun Wan Beach and Kwan Yum Beach, where we relaxed and enjoyed the panorama view of the sea until sunset.
The Bun Scrambling Competition
By 10pm, we made our way to queue for the free admission tickets for the final event of the night. Since there are only 1,000 tickets available for the event, a lot of people were already in line by the time we arrived. Thankfully, we were within the thousand head-count and upon gaining entry inside the venue, the event host and performers kept us all entertained through a series of lion dances, firecrackers and upbeat music; an atmosphere which surely built up the frenzy for the main attraction. At the stroke of midnight, we stood amongst the crowd before the most anticipated event of all: The Bun Scrambling Competition!
As the name suggests, buns play a huge part of the overall ceremony. Why buns? It turns out that they are used for the purpose of offering thanks to the deities who brought peace on the island once more. Filled with a small amount of sweet filling such as lotus seeds, sesame and red bean paste, the white flour bread dough are steamed in big trays and stamped with a pink message of “平安” (Peace). You will find many small bakeries on the island serving these lucky buns during day-time, but do be prepared for the long queues as everyone wants a share of their luck too!
Historically, each family from the island will send a representative to participate in the Bun Scrambling event which involves climbing up a 14 metre tower made entirely of bamboo scaffolding and these edible buns. The aim of the competition is to pluck the highest buns from the tower as it was regarded that the topmost buns brought the most luck and fortune to his family.
However, due to an accident in the 1978 following the collapse of the bamboo tower, this practice was suspended and it was only reinstated back in 2005 after new safety measures were adopted. Today, a specially built metal tower affixed with 9,000 artificial “lucky” buns stands proudly for the event, and in which only 12 of those with appropriate training and have passed the preliminary rounds are able to participate in the competition.
During the 3-minute contest, the scramblers will race up the bun tower whilst plucking and collecting as many buns into their sacks as possible. The host explains in Chinese that the tower is split into three tiers: the top tier buns scores 9-points, the middle tier scores 3-points and the lower tier scores 1-point. So, almost all participants strive to reach the highest ones first to maximise their points.
When the 3-minute is up, contestants are required to have both feet back firmly on the ground in order to qualify and the winner with the highest score value is awarded a prize. The real buns are then harvested and distributed to the locals on the last day as a blessing for good fortune and good health.
As the event drew to an end, we headed back out to the pier just in time to catch the 12:40am ferry departing for Hong Kong. For a tiny island, Cheung Chau really impressed us with its lively spirits and closely knitted community. We will definitely visit again for the coastal hike trails, seafood and the many discoveries this place has to offer!
We hope this post has given you guys an insight into one of Hong Kong’s quirkiest festivals! If you have any questions or would like to get in touch, please feel free to drop us a comment below, shoot us an email or find us on instagram and facebook!