It’s had its ups and downs, but the Cheung Chau Bun Festival is still going strong in the 21st century.
Coincidence? Or not? The annual festival traces its roots to the sudden — some would say miraculous — end of a plague that wreaked havoc on the island of Cheung Chau in the early 20th century, during the later years of the Qing Dynasty.
Residents of the island, located about six miles from Hong Kong, built an altar at the Pak Tai Temple beseeching Pak Tai to drive off the evil spirits causing the plague. At the same time, they paraded statues of Pak Tai and other deities through the narrow lanes of their village. The afflicted recovered. The plague ended. And the tradition took on a life of its own, becoming a ritual reenacted every year during the annual Cheung Chau Bun Festival.
Celebrated on the fifth to the ninth days of the fourth lunar month (May 2–7 this year), the festival roster lists loads of quirky elements: Taoist ceremonies and music, a parade with flamboyant floats, lion dances, drum beating and children dressed in spectacular costumes appearing to float above the crowd on stilts.
The stilt dancers are a relic of the festival’s origins. In its earliest incarnation, revelers numbering in the hundreds anxiously awaited the stroke of midnight to scramble en masse toward 50-foot bamboo towers encased in lotus-paste buns. The goal? To collect the most buns.
The reason remains unclear.
An unfortunate accident put a damper on the bun-climb for decades until nostalgia led to the reemergence of the tradition in the early 21st century, although in a safer form.
Lightning-protected steel-frame staging designed by professional architects replaces the bamboo towers, and the ascent is now limited to a dozen pre-qualified climbers, but the ultimate goal of gathering the most buns remains.
These days, buns are divided into different categories with associated scores. Collect the highest buns and be assured of the best luck.
Hot buns? High buns? Good luck? Bad luck? It’s all in the eye of the beholder.
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