Cheung Chau Bun Festival

Arman is a travel writer at AsiaRooms.com. He is Singaporean – born and bred – which means he’s very accustomed to punctuating his sentences with terms like “lah” or “lor” and having roti prata (delightful fried dough typically enjoyed with curry) for breakfast.

 

Costumed children floating above a sea of bobbing heads, long rows of food left along a harbour for hungry ghosts and a manic ascend to the top of a bun-covered tower; those were the bewildering sights and memories I brought home from the 2013 Cheung Chau Bun Festival in Hong Kong.

Held at Cheung Chau, a dumbbell-shaped island that can only be accessed via ferry from Hong Kong Island, the festival has been deemed one of the quirkiest fêtes known to mankind. While research explains that it originated in the 18th century, a time when local fishermen paraded an image of Pak Tai the Taoist God of the Sea to ward off pirates and plague-causing evil spirits, it did nothing to shed light on how the festival evolved into what it is today.

Nonetheless, it’s this lack of comprehension that adds to the festival’s appeal, and I was determined to witness the main activities that took place on the 17th of May.

Masses of People

32,000 people attended the Cheung Chau Bun Festival this year. While this number is staggering, it hardly comes as a surprise when one considers that May 17th is a national holiday in Hong Kong. That said, I had a horrid time soldering my way through the sea of people on the island. As I slowly progressed to the street where the main carnival was taking place, I even saw a photographer in a congested alleyway balancing between two walls trying to get a better view of the carnival.

PiuSik (Floating Colours) Parade

With time and patience, I finally accessed Pak She Street where the PiuSik or “Floating Colours” Parade took place. An essential part of the festival, it is characterized by the procession of dragon dancers who can occasionally be seen stopping along their designated routes to bless local homes with fortune. Additionally, the PiuSik Parade is the only time when people can see the floating children. Dressed up in costumes, kids aged between five and six are mounted on seats that are attached to rods. With these elevated seats hidden under their long outfits, the kids create the illusion that they are floating above a sea of heads as they are pushed through the streets.

Dancing Cheung Chau Dragons by Laszlo Ilyes. Creative Commons - Flickr

Dancing Cheung Chau Dragons by Laszlo Ilyes. Creative Commons – Flickr

Lucky Buns

The Cheung Chau Ben Festival also coincides with Buddha’s birthday and in consideration for Buddhist monks the island turns mostly vegetarian. After the parade ended I decided to get myself something to eat but although I was craving meat my menu was limited to relatively bland fried noodles and crispy hash browns which I ate at a small eatery facing the sea. I also decided to try the iconic lucky buns which are produced in huge numbers during the festival as offerings to Pak Tai, the deity. They are stamped with the Chinese sign symbolising “peace” and come in three yummy flavours: red bean, lotus and sesame, (a personal favourite).

Food Offerings To Lost Spirits

Both the Hungry Ghost Festival and the Cheung Chau Bun Festival see people offering food to spirits that are believed to be trapped in the dimension between the living world and the afterlife. Food offerings are meant to appease these earth-bound souls and so at the Cheung Chau Bun Festival I walked to the end of Pak She Praya Road and found myself at a harbour where row upon row food had been neatly lined up as offerings. Some of the islanders even burn paper and incense sticks as part of the ritual, making a beautiful glowing orange line along the jetty; great contrast to the dark night sky.

It’s A Race To The Top!

Midnight eventually arrived indicating the commencement of the final event – the race up the bun tower. Tradition dictates that a group of participating climbers climb to the top of a bun-covered tower measuring 14 metres (45’) in height and collect as many buns as possible. While I knew this from research I hadn’t anticipated just how intense the climb would be. At the blow of the whistle the competitors maniacally ascended the tower and ferociously pulled the plastic buns before placing them in pouches that were secured around their waists. After three minutes the race was over and the participant with the most number of buns was declared the champion, indicating the end of the 2013 Cheung Chau Bun Festival.

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