Cover We’re here to make sure you know all about the historic Cheung Chau Bun Festival. (Photo: Getty Images)

From fluffy peace buns to dazzling floats and lion dances, we’re here to make sure you know all about the historic Cheung Chau Bun Festival.

Before we dive into the Cheung Chau Bun Festival of today, did you know that the now joyful occasion comes with a somewhat grim history? The lesser known full name of the festival is Heavenly Emperor of Xuan Tian Tai Ping Ching Chiu. Popular in the Guangdong region, “ching chiu” is a Taoist ritual of praying for peace (“tai ping”) from deities. Xuan Tian is more commonly known as Pak Tai, who is the most important deity in Cheung Chau. Originally a prince and a learned Taoist of Shang Dynasty (1600-1046BC), he was invited by the Taoist Primeval Deity to join the company of immortals. Portrayed as the conqueror of the underlings of the Demon King, including a tortoise and giant serpent, Pak Tai had been worshipped for his courage and power.
 
In the 42nd year of Qianlong (1777), Cheung Chau suffered from a serious plague. The island villagers prayed to Pak Tai to assuage the wandering sea and land spirits by setting an altar for them. These spirits were believed to be victims of the plague or pirates. Since then, this occasion of praying for peace takes place every year from the fifth to eighth day of the fourth month on the lunar calendar, as approved by divinity. Today, the festival is listed as an intangible part of Hong Kong’s cultural heritage, and has even been voted as one of the world’s “Top 10 Quirky Local Festivals” by Time.com.

See also: Island Guide: What To Eat, Drink And Do In Cheung Chau

When is the festival?

The 2020 festival takes place from April 27 to May 1.

Where is the festival held?

Altar rituals will be performed starting from the eve of the festival at Pak Tai Temple (also known as Yuk Hui Temple), where colourful shrines are set up for public worshipping. Built in 1783, this Grade I historic building is known for its green-tiled roof adorned with dragon and ceramic figures. A cavern of treasures, it houses an iron sword dated back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279), a golden crown donated by Madam Chung, a worshipper, in memory of the 1966 visit of Princess Margaret and the Earl of Snowdon, and as well as granite pillars carved with dragons in 1903.

Outside the temple, the communal sportsground will be turned into a worshipping ceremony arena during the festival, where visitors can find three elaborately decorated giant statues of King of Ghosts, the King of the Earth sheltered by a temporary bamboo shrine.

See also: 8 Places In Hong Kong To Learn About Local Heritage And Culture

What is there to eat?

The festival would not be complete without the famed buns. But why buns? To appease the wandering spirits by showing repentance, abstinence is practised starting from the altar rituals. Traditionally, villagers eat vegetarian “peace” buns which are made with sweet fillings, including red bean, lotus seed or sesame paste. These piping hot steamed white buns, usually bigger than a grapefruit, are stamped with the word “peace” in pink.

In the modern days, bakers get creative with their stamps, while fast food joints during the few days of the festival sometimes make mushroom patty burgers. Local eateries also offer vegetarian menus – sweet and sour made with flour and bean curd to imitate duck or chicken slices are the “jai” (vegetarian) signature.

What is there to see?

Eating buns isn’t the only way you can gain peace – some even go as far as competing for peace. The Bun Scrambling Competition takes place on the third day after cremating the Demon King, who brings the wandering ghosts with him and ferries across the sea to the underworld, leaving the islanders in peace. At midnight, contenders climb up the 60-foot bun-covered bamboo towers to collect as many buns – thereby luck – as possible. The higher they climb, the more points the buns are worth.

The competition for luck was actually cancelled for a long time when two bamboo towers fell and injured a hundred in 1978, and it wasn’t resumed until 2005. Since then the number of contenders has been limited, and metal scaffolds and safety harness have been installed. Nowadays, only imitation buns hanging on to the towers – the real ones are distributed so that islanders and visitors don’t have to fight for them. It’s a festival of peace after all.

For those who aren’t looking for an adrenaline rush, the Piu Sik (Floating Colours) Parade is another highlight of the festival. It features young children dressed up as traditional local deities, celebrities or iconic individuals in society. There are also dazzling lion dances and drum performances which create a scene of excitement to help drive the spirits away.

Unfortunately due to COVID-19, the Piu Sik Parade and Bun Scrambling Competition will be cancelled this year, though you can still enjoy the magical creature dances and deities’ procession, as well as the bun tower displays. What’s more, you can still head over to the bamboo theatres to discover another lesser known gem activity: deity worshipping plays. These plays are performed mainly for deities to watch. Mortals are welcome to join, however. Islanders believe that this good deed of entertaining deities and celebrating their legends can earn them divine blessings. As the saying goes, pandemic or not, the show must go on.

© 2021 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.