Hong Kong’s annual Cheung Chau Bun Festival takes place on the island of Cheung Chau, located southwest of Hong Kong Island. It is a type of Da Jiu festival, a Taoist ritual historically associated with rural communities of southern China. Today, the bun festival is a major cultural event that draws huge crowds every year.
“Lucky buns” are the signature item of this three day festival, which typically falls around early May. As part of the celebration, three bamboo “bun towers” are erected outside Pak Tai temple. Covered from top to bottom in real bread buns, the towers are dedicated to the Taoist deity Pak Tai, the patron god of fishermen.
To prepare for the festival, a Cheung Chau bakery named Kwok Kam Kee works around the clock in the days leading up to the celebration, baking buns. The white buns, which are made of flour and contain a sweet filling — typically lotus seed paste — are stamped with the Chinese word for “peace” in red ink. Kwok Kam Kee produces 60,000 buns for the festival. In addition to the buns decorating the towers, there are buns galore for sale during the festival.
The highlights of the festival, the Bun Scrambling Competition and the Piu Sik (Floating Colors) Parade, are held on the third and final day, which falls on Buddha’s Birthday, a public holiday in Hong Kong.
In the Bun Scrambling Competition, climbers ascend a 60 foot (18 m) artificial bun tower, collecting as many plastic buns as possible.
Traditionally, the competition took place on the bamboo bun towers outside Pak Tai temple. However, in 1978, the collapse of two of the towers during a heated race resulted in two dozen injuries. The event was banned by the government for over two decades, until it was finally reintroduced in 2005, with an artificial steel tower and new safety regulations.
The final individual race takes place on the stroke of midnight. 12 finalists, with bags attached to their waists, scramble up the massive tower as fast as they can, collecting as many buns as possible. The goal is to score as many points as possible within three minutes. The higher the buns are located, the more points they’re worth.
After the allotted time is up, the male and female contestants with the highest total scores are crowned the champions. There is also a “Full Pockets of Lucky Buns” award for the person who snatches most buns, regardless of total score.
The other major event of the bun festival is the Piu Sik (Floating Colors) Parade, a noisy, colorful event that starts from the Piu Sik temple and winds its way through the village. In addition to the usual drummers and dancers, the parade has a special Children’s Float. This quirky tradition features costumed children standing on floats high above the crowds, dressed as deities and other figures from Chinese mythology.