Header image courtesy of GY Mak (via Shutterstock)
Drawing in hundreds of eager spectators and curious tourists from all over the globe, the annual Cheung Chau Bun Festival (包山節; baau1 saan1 jit3) is undoubtedly the biggest occasion of the island—and a grand affair it is, too. A centuries-long practice that encompasses a number of exciting celebrations, the Cheung Chau Bun Festival has a rich cultural history. Read on to find out how attempts to drive away the bubonic plague formed the roots of the deeply significant and highly fascinating annual celebration we now know as the Cheung Chau Bun Festival.
Spanning across the fifth to ninth days of the fourth Lunar month of every year, the Cheung Chau Bun Festival is actually part of a larger series of celebrations known as the Da Jiu Festival (打醮; da2 jiu3)—or the Tai Ping Ching Chiu (太平清醮; taai3 ping4 ching1 jiu3) in full—which is a colourful festival practised by Taoists.
At its core, the parade honours the martial deity Pak Tai (北帝; bak1 dai3). His real-life counterpart was believed to have been a Taoist prince from the Shang dynasty. This “northern emperor” is worshipped by islanders as a great god with the power to bring them smooth sailing on voyages and bountiful catches.
Surrounding his permanent abode—the Pak Tai Temple, nestled within the upper peninsula of Cheung Chau—Da Jiu festivities call for the construction of a temporary bamboo shrine, where Pak Tai is presented to the public over the course of a few days. Right beside the holy checkpoint is the temple playground, which becomes converted into bun-snatching tournament grounds, with an elaborate bamboo theatre right beside it.
Epitomising the atmosphere of “hot and noisy” (熱鬧; yit6 naau6—a literal translation that means “rowdy”), the roster of activities is constantly rolling at a lively pace. It includes mobile worship rituals, a vibrant piu sik parade (飄色巡遊; piu1 sik1 ceon4 jau4), lions and dragon dances (麒麟舞; kei4 leun4 mou5), an effigy burning ceremony, Cantonese opera plays, as well as the ever-iconic and highly anticipated bun-snatching competition. Delightful activity stalls and educational booths are also open to the public nearby.
Occupying a place on Hong Kong’s official Intangible Cultural Heritage list since 2011, the Da Jiu Festival has been recognised as a facet of local culture to be conserved and propagated amongst future generations.
Threading mystic island folklore with a dark moment in Hong Kong’s past, the beginnings of the Da Jiu Festival saw its first sparks during the late Qing dynasty. It was originally held in the Tai Ping Shan area that now comprises Sheung Wan and Mid-Levels, where the practice began as an exercise of devotion to the gods in exchange for protection from evil spirits and ghastly pirates.
In the earlier days, the event that took centre stage (figuratively and literally) was the parading of the Pak Tai statue. Carved from black-coloured wood, a likeness of the deity is draped in a silky red ensemble and placed atop an embellished sedan to be hoisted around the entire village. As the procession continues, the statue is meant to help appease wandering spirits, whilst Taoist priests and observing devotees trail behind.
So, when exactly did the festival make its way to Cheung Chau? Having been interwoven into the history of Cheung Chau for well over a century now, the Da Jiu Festival was brought over by the Hailufeng community as a result of tightened restrictions around ceremonial rituals, put in place by the colonial government in the late eighteenth century over safety concerns and potential fire hazards.
Taking place across a period of a few days, the island-wide festival begins with the aforementioned march that escorts the sacred Pak Tai statue around to diffuse blessings all around. Families, residents, and curious visitors gather around the display altar to pay their respects, dedicating runes of worship like joss paper, incense, and food offerings. Theatrical re-tellings of local legends and other Cantonese opera plays are on offer at the neighbouring bamboo theatre to entertain revellers and festival-goers.
Next to the temple set-up, three five-metre-tall papier-mâché figures are planted to watch over the events. First of the trio is the King of Ghosts, better known as an incarnate of Guanyin (觀音; gun1 jam1), the Chinese goddess of mercy, whose role is to oversee the wandering spirits accepting the blessings of Pak Tai. Flanking the two sides are statues of the God of Earth and God of Mountains, representing prosperity and good weather.
Ornate and impressive as they are, these crafted models are due to be cremated at 11 pm on the last day of the festival. The bonfire is held in conjunction with a grand vegetarian feast, the chanted Taoist invocations a swansong to assuage spirits with an amicable exit from our realm, led by the King of Ghosts himself.
As a show of abstinence in representing fervour, dedicated practitioners will stick to a meatless diet for the entirety of the celebratory period. Most eateries also see to it that their menu temporarily swaps out omnivore-targeted items with plant-based alternatives, with dim sum parlours sticking to veggie spring rolls and cha chaan tengs trading their steak rice for sauced-up spaghettis. Even juggernaut fast-food diner McDonald’s released a McVeggie burger with a mushroom patty, served exclusively for the festival.
Described by the Hong Kong Commercial Daily as “simply a cheerleading crew for the gods,” the idea of celestial icons touring around Cheung Chau certainly brings to mind the parading of the Pak Tai statue. Translated as a “floating colours parade,” the piu sik parade (飄色巡遊; piu1 sik1 ceon4 jau4) is an extremely popular event occurring on the second-last day of the festival timetable.
Akin to a pageant, tiny children are decked out in themed outfits emulating fantastical characters from Chinese folklore. Hoisted onto a steel pedestal atop a crafted pushcart, they must then stand still as the cart is pushed, smiling and waving the whole time—the entire ordeal can last up to four whole hours!
Ingeniously disguised, the contraption gives the illusion of hovering, but it is not without elbow grease from the palanquin bearers who orbit around the sweaty “floating” character. Participants branch into a number of piu sik squads, each choosing a theme to exhibit before figuring out the precise mechanics of their float.
Coming from a lineage of blacksmiths that have been working in Cheung Chau for three generations now, Wong Shing-chau notes the unique design and building process of each construction, stating that “every group has its own set of requirements.” From welding the first structural frames to the costume and make-up, the final product is a show of collaborative craftsmanship and creativity amongst members of the community.
Having been introduced to the island festival for over 90 years now, piu sik ongoings have transformed into a competition referred to as “The Bodhisattva Run,” whereby float crews are pitted against each other to cover ground and perform rituals around Cheung Chau. Groups are able to take the win by being the first ones to complete all the quests along the way, and make it back to the shrine first.
However, being the fastest team doesn’t necessarily guarantee the most fame and attention, as reflected in the fascination towards the growing list of themes. As times shifted, traditional tales began to fade in prominence, and audiences gravitated instead towards piu sik designs that showcase impersonations of celebrities, satirical caricatures of contemporary figures or politicians, and pop culture stand-ins.
Tall conical shadows loom over the jam-packed football pitch as loudspeakers grating feedback announce the climbers who are about to try their luck at becoming the fastest to race to the apex of a “bun mountain” (包山; baau1 saan1). Eager hordes shove their way to the front, phones held high for the critical moment. This is what they have been waiting for—the final lap to round off the festivities with a banging gong.
Perhaps the biggest reason why the Cheung Chau Bun Festival draws upwards of 60,000 tourists every year is the adrenaline rush-inducing bun-snatching competition. Athletes scale a gargantuan, hand-built peak bearing a façade of peace buns (平安包; ping4 on1 bau1), scrambling to pluck and pocket as many as they can on their race to the top. The higher the bun you latch onto, the more promising the fortune.
Bun-snatching as a sport is believed to have originated from cheung gu (搶孤), a practice that symbolises the snatching of food from lonely wandering spirits, which was meant to bring the bandit’s family good luck. In the past, these quirky towers used to stretch up to 60-feet-tall and consisted of bamboo poles fastened together—up until the disastrous tumble of 1978, that is.
As there was little to no regulatory oversight into the bun-scrambling competitions, people were accustomed to a free-for-all commotion, where willing adults would simply free-climb up the mountains en masse. One night in 1978 saw the toppling over of a mountain that injured 100 individuals, causing a brief hiatus of the arrangement that lasted until 2005.
Starting afresh, the return of the event was accompanied by a stringent upgrade of safety requirements and reasonable concerns regarding the food waste produced. Bamboo joints were traded for steel frames, and reusable plastic buns were attached in place of the edible ones. The shortlist of climbers was cut down to 12, and allowed only well-trained personnel to participate.
Although the competition equipment has been altered, the importance of the buns still remains. Doling out endless rows of fluffy steamed buns stamped in pink lettering, resident pastry shop Kwok Kam Kee has been the official provider for the Cheung Chau Bun Festival for over four decades. Its selection comes with lotus, red bean, and sesame paste fillings.
At the final stroke of the festival, the master cake makers offer up their products as souvenirs, giving away hundreds of peace buns to the highly blessed crowds.
As the crowds evaporate, and the smell of salt grows thicker in the night air, Cheung Chau seems to slowly tread back into its usual aura of placidity, lying dormant in a sea of calm for another year. Like the waves that crash against the coastline, the celebrations have turned and shifted along with the tides of change, brought upon by the marching forward of time.
What was once a demonstration of faith in the gods in exchange for protection is now a delicate balancing act of preservation—but also aggrandisement that some fear may one day teeter into exploitation. Religious emphases have shifted to mould itself against the ambition of drawing in economic gains, irrevocably injecting commercialisation into part of the festival. Despite the movements in its underlying priorities and values, it is safe to bet that the Cheung Chau Bun Festival will forever have a foothold in the culture of Hong Kong.