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
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