Cheung Chau, a 2.4-square-kilometre outlying island situated to the southwest of Hong Kong Island, is a city dwellers's paradise: there are no skyscrapers, no vehicles and none of the disturbance of modern city life. However, in the fourth lunar month each year, this quiet island is transformed into a hive of activity when the fascinating Bun Festival, Cheung Chau's main claim to fame, takes place.
A Harbour Free From The Commotion of the City
Cheung Chau is 12 kilometres from Hong Kong Island, and it takes around an hour to get there by ferry. When the Bun Festival is not in full swing, visitors are soaked in the atmosphere of a typical fishing village.
Cheung Chau looks very similar to a dumbbell: it was formed by two separate islets linked together by a gradually-accumulated sand bank. As a result, both the north and south ends of the island are hilly while the central region, the isthmus, is narrow and flat, providing an ideal location for housing. To the east of the isthmus if Tung Wan, a beautiful beach with clear water and soft sand, while to the west is a pier with Chinese-style fishing boasts shuttling to and fro. The distance between the two spots is only 200 metres.
Strolling along the maze-like lanes on the island, you feel as if you have been taken back to a fishing village lost in time. The majority of the stalls lining both sides of the lanes sell seafood and dried sea produce; a fishy whiff assails you pass them. The rest are groceries and various restaurants.
Though the lanes zigzag, visitors will not get lost--simply remember that the main streets on the islands run from north to south down the narrow isthmus. Following them in either direction will bring you to the two main tourist attractions on the island: the Tin Hau Temple in the south, dedicated to Tin Hau, the Goddess of the Sea, and the Pak Tai Temple to the north, where the Lord of the North (Pak Tail), the fishermen's patron deity, is enshrined and worshipped.
Since Cheung Chau enjoys such tranquillity and ambience, it has emerged as a popular holiday resort for townsfolk. Many people, including some foreigners, even settle in Cheung Chau, treating this small island as their home town.
The Bun Festival: Entertaining Gods, Spirits and Men
The annual Taiping Qingjiao (Peaceful Taoist Sacrificial Ceremony) better known as the Bun Festival in English, is a thrilling carnival for the islanders. Each year, the peaceful fishing village is converted into a place bursting with joy and excitement: the bay is packed with fishing boats and yachts from near and afar; the streets are decorated with colourful flags; tens of thousands of tourists from Hong Kong and overseas pour into the area, bringing liveliness and jubilation to the island.
In high spirits, the inhabitants of Cheung Chau begin their preparations several days before the grand ceremony. Scaffolds are erected and decorated with multi-coloured paper flowers contributed by various associations and neighbourhood committees. Written on them are prayers for luck and good health, messages offering thanks for gods' blessing, and the names of the contributors. On the square outside the Pak Tai Temple, a bamboo stage and a temporary altar are built, and three gigantic "bun towers" are erected.
During the festival, there is a tradition that the residents stop slaughtering and give up meat for three days. Most of the restaurants on the island serve only vegetarian foods in this period of fasting. Respecting the local customs, foreigners living there generally follow suit.
Opinions vary concerning the origins of the Bun Festival. The prevalent theory goes like this: in the middle of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Cheung Chau was devastated by a storm, followed by an outbreak of the plague which claimed many lives. The island was believed to be haunted. In view of this, a sacrificial ceremony was performed by the inhabitants, on the one hand to placate the lingering spirits of the dead, on the other hand to pray for the gods' favour for the living. The island was clear thereafter. This tradition passed on from generation to generation and has now transformed into a major Chinese festival held in the fourth lunar month.
In fact, the original ritual of the Bun Festival has undergone some changes. In the past, the festival reached its climax with the rite of "snatching the bun towers"' in which villagers competed with each other in scrambling up the mountains to grab the lucky buns. However, following an accident in the 1970s when the bun towers collapsed causing injuries, the rite ceased. Buns are now distributed, and an exhilarating parade has replaced the rite as the climax of the festival. Meanwhile, the objective of this Taoist service has changed too. Formely, the aim was to pay homage to the gods and to placate the ghosts, but now the living are also considered.
The Fascinating 'Float Procession' --Piaose
The ceremony is held in the open area outside Pak Tai Temple, and the venue is crowded with people early in the morning. The three giant bun towers, 16 metres high, are covered with numerous white buns, each garnished with a red mark. They are called the "nether buns", as no one can eat them until the ghosts have had their fill, but are also referred to as the "lucky buns"' since the locals believe that eating the buns will bring them good luck. Traditional Cantonese opera is performed on the stage at the centre of the square day and night throughout the festival. The temporary altar is decorated with several enormous effigies of deities and giant incense sticks, creating an extraordinary display.
The climax of the festival builds up gradually from the afternoon. The ceremony begins with lion and dragon dancing. The statues of various deities enshrined in different temples on the island are then respectfully transported to the square, where they are worshipped by the inhabitants. Soon after, the impressive parade starts.
A procession composed of members of lion and dragon dancing teams, martial art performers, folk dancers, and children of the piaose parade representing various organisations start out from the square of the Pak Tai Temple, proceeding along the main streets lined with an enthusiastic audience. They head towards the open area outside the Tin Hau Temple, the "stage" for these entertainers. Guests and overseas visitors gather here to admire the spectacular performances.
Overseas travellers are astonished by the Piaose (literally, "Floating Colours"), or the "Float Procession": children dressed up as characters from Chinese folklore--heroes, fairies, demons, scholars and beauties, as well as modern celebrities. They "float" shoulder-high above the crowd to the bewilderment of foreigners: how can the children "stand" on a cup, a paper fan, or even the tip of a sword? The truth is that each of the young performers is actually safely secured by an exquisitely -designed steel frame camouflaged with delicate props. creating the illusion that the children are "gliding through the air". The parents are proud of their kids being elected as a Pialse performer as they believe the child will be blessed.
The carnival still carries on in spite of the end of the procession. Several lion dancing teams entertain the crowd by showing their superb skills. Villages in the parade carrying the statues of deities in sedans compete with each other to send the "gods" back to the temporary altar for good luck, and devotees follow to flock to the altar, praying and offering sacrifices to the gods.
Exotic Sacrificial Ceremony and Bun Distribution
At dusk, in Pak Tai Temple's square, dozens of "nether feasts" are prepared--sacrifices composed of food, wine and daily necessities dedicated to the spirits of the victims of all kinds of disasters. Taoist monks pray for the ghosts so as to placate them; villagers burn incense sticks in front of the sacrifice, inviting the lingering spirits to enjoy the offerings. The surrounding spectators get the feeling that they, too, have entered the nether world.
Fifteen minutes to midnight and the rite is brought to its climax: the paper effigy of the "King of Ghosts" is set on fire in the open area. Without waiting for the extinction of the bonfire, the islanders hurry to grab the offerings of the nether feasts. According to local beliefs, the sacrifices will bring peace to them.
At midnight, the crowd gathers around the bun towers. This was formerly the time to snatch the buns, but today the buns are distributed. All the same, the inhabitants of the island still look forward to this annual event. Several men climb up the immense bun towers to "harvest" the buns with long hooked sticks. They are collected in large bamboo baskets and distributed to the villagers, who are pleased to have a share of these auspicious buns.
Most travellers disperse after this rite, but the locals stay on for the performances staged on the temporary "theatre" throughout the night, immersing themselves in the jovial atmosphere.