In less than an hour of ferry from the commercial centre of Hong Kong lies the island of Cheung Chau, home to a former fishing community, a legendary pirate treasure trove, dozens of seafood restaurants, and the biggest annual Taoist Dajiao (打醮) festivals in Hong Kong, the Bun Festival (太平清醮). Originated from a series of religious rituals seeking for protection from local deities after a plague broke out in the 19th century, the Bun Festival held annually on Buddha’s Birthday has been simplified and evolved into one of Hong Kong’s most famous intangible cultural heritage events, along with Tai Hang’s Fire Dragon Festival, Tai O Dragon Boat Water Parade, etc.
In 2014, I came to Cheung Chau during the Bun Festival to watch the Bun Snatching Race at night. This time, we arrived at Cheung Chau during the day to watch the afternoon parade. Known as the Parade of Floats (飄色), the parade included a combination of religious statues of deities, lion and qilin (麒麟) dances, and children dressed in costumes raised in mid air.
The parade began at Pak Tai Temple, the patron god of the fishermen community of Cheung Chau.
In the back lanes we chanced upon a workshop making the festival’s fortune bun. The workshop owner suggested the plaza where the parade groups would make a turn as ideal spot to watch the parade.
We met a local lady at the plaza and she kindly found us a chair at the front row sitting right beside her. The first thing that caught our eyes was a qilin dance from one of the street communities on the island.
Basically the parade consisted of groups from different street communities of Cheung Chau.
Small statues of deities were taken out from temples and paraded around the main streets of the island.
Local children were dressed in traditional costumes and gave out souvenirs.
All parading groups were dressed in vivid colours.
Beautiful banners of the festival are taken out once a year.
Known as Parade of Floats (飄色), selected children are dressed in different costumes and raised with hidden metal supports. Along with the ones in traditional costumes, each year some children would dress in costumes related to contemporary trends or current affairs.
This year, two were dressed like the chief executive of Hong Kong, one as Theresa May, one Buddha, one Super Mario, a group of characters from Jin Yong (金庸)’s The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber (倚天屠龍記), etc.
A girl dressed in costume related to a historical TV series.
Another girl dressed as the chief executive of Hong Kong.
Two children dressed like a traditional princess.
Another one dressed like Super Mario.
Though the traditional lion dances on bamboo were even more impressive.
Brave lion dancer performed different moves on tall bamboo poles that were controlled and moved by his other teammates on the ground.
Dancing traditional large flags were also fun to watch.
The parade was a mixture of traditional heritage, current affairs, and community groups.
Parade band dressed in yellow and black performed along the street of Cheung Chau.
Inevitably, buns were used as a parade feature.
After the parade, we met the qilin dance group once again in the side street.
Approaching sunset, we returned to the forecourt in front of Pak Tai Temple.
Similar to 2014, there were three big traditional paper figures in the festival ground.
Some of the paper figures were moved to the waterfront for the burning rituals.
By the sea, offerings and lanterns were placed for all wandering ghosts.
The Buddha’s Birthday on the 6th of May was a public holiday in Hong Kong. It also marked the final day of the 2014 Cheung Chau Bun Festival. On this day, the festival highlights included the Parade of “Floating Colours” in the afternoon, followed by the ghost rituals in the evening, and the bun-snatching race at midnight. I arrived at Cheung Chau at around 6:30pm. The first thing I saw was the enormous crowd lining up at the pier, who were waiting for the city-bound ferry after watching the afternoon parade. That evening I stayed on the island for about 6 hours, in which 4.5 hours were spent in queue for the bun-snatching race that lasted for only 3 minutes. Luckily, before I was trapped in the queue, I did stumble upon the interesting ghost rituals at the waterfront.
The bun-snatching race has always been considered the climax of the Bun Festival. Originally the race was restricted to the communities of Cheung Chau. Over a hundred participants would race up one of the three bun mounts to snatch as many buns as they could from as high up as possible. Each bun they gathered represented good fortune; the higher they reached to the top, the better the fortune gained for the community. In 1978, a bun mount collapsed during the race and injured many. The event was consequently banned until a much-modified version reemerged in 2005.
Before the bun-snatching race was reintroduced in 2005, a popular HK-produced animated film in 2001, My Life as McDull, uses the bun-snatching race as one of the central themes to reflect on HK’s collective memories and spirit. My Life as McDull depicts the pure and simple life of a piglet character named McDull in Hong Kong. In the film, McDull constantly fails to achieve his goals but he never gives up trying and dreaming. Inspired by Olympic gold medalist Lee Lai Shan, one of McDull’s dream is to participate in the Olympics, and his chosen sport is the bun-snatching race. The story portrays how McDull trains hard to master bun-snatching techniques, and also illustrates how his mother writes to the IOC with her limited English asking them to consider bun-snatching as an official sport. Many considered the popularity of McDull as the main driving force behind the government’s decision to revive the bun-snatching race after a 26-year ban.
Unlike the community-based event prior to 1978, the reintroduced bun-snatching race since 2005 has been a government-run event aimed for tourism. From the first glance, the new event resembles a rock-climbing competition contested by well-trained climbers, many of which are actually police or firefighter from other parts of the city. The original three bun mounts have been reduced to one, and the number of participants has been cut down to a dozen. Steel replaces bamboo for the mount structure, and plastic buns substitute the traditional fresh home-made buns. To many, the biggest drawback of the reinvented event is the fact that the race is no longer a community event of Cheung Chau, but a commercialized tourist spectacle emphasized on showmanship, sponsorship and order. No wonder the biggest criticism has come from nowhere else but Cheung Chau, where many saw the new race a poor appropriation and a pillage of their own heritage.
Lion dance went from one shop to another to chase off evil spirit and welcome good fortune.Long lineups at the ferry pier waiting for the city-bound ferry services.Worshipers at the waterfront performed rituals dedicated to the ghosts.Lanterns, incenses and snacks dedicated to the lost spirits were neatly placed at the waterfront.The three traditional bamboo-supported bun mounts were erected for display only.The steel-supported bun mount at the centre stage was equipped with climbing ropes and safety mats.The bun snatching race was at the mercy of the unpredictable weather.Despite the long wait and great anticipation, the actual race lasted for only three minutes. It was like a performance on stage which lacked the spirit of the actual community.
Held every year in the fourth month of the lunar calendar, Cheung Chau’s Bun Festival, or “Tai Ping Ching Chiu” in Cantonese, is comprised of a series of Chinese religious rituals, a massive street parade, and a bun-snatching race. I never got a chance to experience the Bun Festival in person; but the old photographs of the bun-snatching race, in which dozens of strong men climbing madly up to the top of a multi-storey high bun mount collecting the white buns, have captured my attention since I was a child. Unfortunately, due to an accident in 1978 the race was banned before I was even born. In 2005, the government reintroduced a new bun-snatching event known as the Bun-Snatching Carnival, and has since then promoting it as the regional cultural event in Hong Kong.
Dated back to the 18th century, the Bun Festival is a religious event dedicated to the Taoist deity of Pak Tai, whose power was credited for stopping a devastating plague and chasing off evil spirits. Every year the forecourt of Cheung Chau’s Pak Tai Temple is transformed into the main festival ground, where gigantic bun mounts are displayed, a temporary stage for Chinese opera is set up, and a bamboo shelter is erected to house three huge papier mâché deities. On the weekend before this year’s bun-snatching festival, Cheung Chau was already packed with visitors who came to check out the preparation of the festival, the bun mounts, lion dances, Chinese opera performances and other religious rituals that officially kick-start the festival.
Traditional lucky wheels, the popular merchandises at the festival ground.Community groups were busy setting up the bun mount displays.There were many actions around and a group of men unexpectedly running towards my direction from nowhere with the huge papier mache deities which were being relocated into a bamboo shelter at the festival ground.
The temporary stage for Chinese Opera would become a focal point after sunset.Donor recognition wall at the back of the temporary stage for Chinese opera, with each name and donation amount handwritten on bright orange papersAfter sunset, the lights at the festival ground unveiled a romantic ambiance. The three huge bun mounts looked even more impressive with the floodlights.
The three papier mache deities were displayed at a temporary shrine.A woman came to check out the donor list. There were a few spots for deities worship within the festival ground.The forecourt of Pak Tai Temple and the adjacent basketball courts were transformed into the main festival ground for the Bun FestivalBoth the huge and small bun-mounts were made with real Chinese buns.There is always lion dance performance for large Chinese celebration.
Just 45 minutes of ferry from the Central Ferry Piers, the Island of Cheung Chau is one of the last fishing communities in Hong Kong. As a grown up who has come to terms with the ever-changing cityscape of Hong Kong, visiting the island’s narrow laneways, fishermen marinas, historical temples, crumbling buildings, shabby souvenir shops, and cluttered seafood eateries is like wandering in an atmospheric film set of Hong Kong decades back in time. Cheung Chau has always been a highly popular weekend getaway destination among families with kids, teenage groups, young couples, and amateur photographers.
Cheung Chau was one of the earliest inhabited spots in the territory of Hong Kong. Spending most of their lives on boats, the early settlers originated from various fishing communities in Southern China. Living off the sea is no longer the case, but the people of Cheung Chau nowadays still maintain a unique seafolk culture. Perhaps it is no surprise that the island was the birthplace and training ground of Lee Lai Shan, the first Olympic gold medalist of Hong Kong who made history by competing in the sea for windsurfing. A little further back in history, Cheung Chau was also the legendary “treasure island” of pirate Cheung Po Tsai, who roamed the waters of South China Sea with his 50,000 strong followers in the early 19th century. Each year around early May, the people in Cheung Chau is busy preparing for its annual cultural celebration – the Bun Festival.
Life remains casual with a sense of community on the island. It’s common to see public space being taken over by private use. In this case, seafood eateries have their table clothes hanging on the concrete balustrade for drying under the sun.People visit Cheung Chau for various reasons with noon would argue the sense of tranquility in a low dense streetscape on the island is a rarity in Hong Kong.The shabby looking guesthouses along the beaches don’t seem very inviting. Buildings such as this abandoned cinema are in crumbling conditions but preserve a sense of history.There are a number of century old temples on the island where tourists rub shoulders with local worshipers.Traditional street stall selling assorted groceries is still a common sight on the island.
The fishballs from Kam Wing Tai are popular local specialties made on the island.Dry seafood of various kinds can be found everywhere on the island. No visitors would leave the island without feasting at one of the local seafood eateries along the waterfront.The islanders are getting ready for the upcoming multi-day celebrations of the Bun Festival.