Hong Kong’s zany bun festival
Hong Kong’s Cheung Chau Bun Festival culminates in a race where competitors shimmy to the top of three pyramids fashioned out of plastic buns. (Hong Kong Tourism Board)
There's no question that Hong Kong's traditional holiday celebrations are colourful, from the buckets of freshly-cut flowers exploding out of market stalls during Chinese New Year to the gentle glow of the elaborate lanterns that pay homage to the harvest moon during the Mid-Autumn Festival.
But no ritual is as vibrant -- or as zany -- as the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, an annual springtime rite characterized by parades, performances -- and thousands of hunks of steamed dough.
A 40-minute ferry ride from downtown Hong Kong, the sleepy island of Cheung Chau is a fishing village with narrow lanes, seafood restaurants, beaches and water sports. Once known for being an outpost of piracy within the territory, today it is a destination for city folk looking for a laid-back day trip -- except during the bun festival, when huge crowds gather to witness the spectacle.
Held annually according to the lunar calendar (this year falling on 25 to 29 April), the bun festival's origins date back 100 years to when a plague struck the island, and in response villagers set up an altar to Pak Tai, a Taoist god. They sacrificed offerings to drive away the evil spirits causing the scourge -- and it worked. The bun festival is celebrated every year to thank the deities who saved the island.
Hong Kongers and tourists pack Cheung Chau for the four-day affair, which is chock-full of Cantonese opera shows, lion and unicorn dances and Chinese acrobatics. Bands play; drums beat; flags wave. In the parade that winds through the small island, five- and six-year old children are suspended above floats, dressed in bright silk outfits to resemble mythological figures.
It culminates in a midnight bun-scrambling competition, during which villagers shimmy to the top of three 14-metre-tall pyramids fashioned out of buns -- 9,000 of them, to be exact (and today made of plastic to avoid wasting food). In the past, villagers believed that whoever gathered the most buns would bring their family good health and fortune. These days, competitors carry sacks to hold the buns, wear competitor numbers like runners and are strapped into harnesses as if they were climbing a rock wall instead of scaling a tower of dough. They collect as many buns as they can in three minutes, and the winner is the contestant who racks up the most.
You don’t just have fun with buns at the festival--you eat them. Giant bamboo steamer baskets full of buns are everywhere. They come in sesame, lotus or red bean paste varieties, all bearing a red stamp with the Chinese character for peace. At the conclusion of the celebrations, the auspicious buns are doled out to villagers and visitors. Because of the limited supply, there are often queues, so most festival-goers simply buy them throughout the festival -- and even throughout the year -- at many Cheung Chau food stalls.
Hana R Alberts is the Hong Kong Localite for BBC Travel