Sunday, midnight

A tall white tower stands in the distance, covered completely with plastic buns and radiating (or is it reflecting?) a blinding white light.  Voices carry over loudspeakers, but from where we’re standing (several exchange students and myself) at the very back of the crowd their announcements are meaningless.  Music fills the spaces in between.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, a countdown (in Cantonese) begins – “10! 9! 8!…3! 2! 1!” – and with the final collective breath a sea of voices – and just as amusingly, phones and cameras – rise in celebration: the games have begun.  Contestants begin climbing the tower in a massive frenzy, knocking down buns as they scramble to the very top to claim those in the upper ranks (more on this later).  They fill their sacks and scramble back down, packs bulging under the strain of carrying so many buns.

This is the Cheung Chau Bun Festival (包山節), one of Hong Kong’s most unique and beloved annual festivals.  But even amidst all the excitement, the inevitable question remains:

What’s going on?

Every year, on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month, thousands of visitors – locals and tourists alike – descend on the island of Cheung Chau (located southwest of the Island and southeast of Lantau Island) to observe and celebrate the island’s “bun festival.”  The week-long festival and its numerous activities have roots in Taoist sacrificial ceremonies, and the whole occasion one (and arguably the biggest) of several da jiu (打醮; da jiao in Mandarin) festivals intended to appeal for peace and prosperity each year.  Nowadays, however, the star attraction is – and has been for some time – the bun-snatching competition.

Both the Bun Festival’s events and its history are quite complicated – albeit for vastly different reasons – but each aspect deserves some discussion.  Between the two, the modern-day festival and the competition are perhaps easier to describe.

I.  The festival

During the day, Cheung Chau plays host to a variety of “traditional” and “modernized” activities and practices designed to celebrate the festival’s Taoist roots.  The parade through the island’s small urban center is a big draw and features an expected mix of dragon dances, flag-bearers, and an unusual number of kids dressed in bright yellow clothes walking on stilts (or so I think).  But there are other more traditional practices as well: many visitors making their way to the island’s several temples (Tin Hau (天后) and Pak Tai (北帝), among others) to offer prayers and libations, and other performances in the town center include Cantonese opera and, at night, the burning of an immense paper effigy of the “king of ghosts,” presumably to chase away the evil spirits that have plagued the island for the previous year.

Miniature bun towers on display.

Visitors light candles and offer buns (edible) and libations to Taoist deities at night during the Cheung Chau Bun Festival (包山節).

To summarize at the risk of discounting inherently sacred traditions – something for which I have apologized rather often and will continue to do for some time – the bun festival indeed has something to offer for everyone.  But it wouldn’t be a bun festival without buns, of course…

Which brings us to the bun-snatching competition itself.

Participants scramble to collect buns at the top of the bun tower.

The general object of the bun-snatching competition is to collect as many plastic buns from a single tower in a limited amount of time (three minutes to be exact) in order to achieve the highest score (among one’s competitors).  The buns are roughly ‘tiered’ along the tower, to the extent that those that sit at or near the very top (about 60 feet or 20 meters high) are worth more than ones near the base.  The scoring system is a bit fuzzy – either they explained it during those announcements or I’m just making all of this up from hearsay – but presumably it helps to be a quick climber and a decisive bun snatcher in order to stay competitive.

You can possibly imagine, then, how hilarious – and maybe oddly exhilarating – watching such an event can be.  If you can’t, however, then here’s some footage of the competition held in 2010.  (I have videos as well but can’t upload them directly here without getting the proper WordPress upgrade, so my apologies.)

Taken as things are, the Cheung Chau Bun Festival is, at its core, an exciting event in which people from all over Hong Kong and elsewhere congregate to simply celebrate the perseverance and evolution of tradition.  But consider it from a different lens – of tradition itself – and the festival becomes something else, something dynamic enough that it embodies much more than what it may proclaim to celebrate.

II.  A history of the festival

(Credit to Martin, contributor to the website Cheung Chau HK (長洲HK), for his wonderfully concise overview of the festival’s history.  The factual basis of what I’ve written here is adapted from his article.)

The ‘real’ origins of the Cheung Chau Bun Festival have long been unclear, for reasons that I’d like to posit a bit later.  One popular version of the story, however, suggests that a plague broke out on the island several hundred years ago, prompting local residents to drive away the evil spirits responsible for the outbreak by dressing up as Taoist deities.  An alternative version – as recounted by two elderly residents and as investigated by Professor Choi Chi-cheung (蔡志祥) at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK, 香港中文大學) cites the plague but mentions Tai Ping Shan (太平山, now Victoria Peak) as the site of the outbreak.  Still other versions tell stories involving pirates, or even mere circumstance.

In the elders’ version, the attempt to stop the plague began when a man from the city of Huizhou (惠州) appealed to the deity Pak Tai – one of several who are believed to have defeated the Demon King after the fall of the Shang Dynasty (商朝) – for mercy.  Soon other residents followed in prayer, and over time the disease fell away.  In celebration of their triumph and of Pak Tai’s intervention, the people of Tai Ping Shan organized an annual festival in honor of their deity (sometimes considered to be a “patron saint”).  When local authorities forced the community to abandon festivities due to tightening fire regulations, the people ‘moved’ the festival to Cheung Chau – which already had, at that point in time, a sizable Huizhou-based community of its own.

Naturally, these versions themselves have evolved with time, and a concerted effort to locate similarities, traditions, and ‘truths’ – not unlike the research Professor Choi has done – among these accounts is likely to raise even more questions than it does answers.  But what especially interests me is how that ambiguity translates into present-day Hong Kong – I’m stepping back from the festival a little bit – and what it implies about the meaning of “tradition” here, and almost certainly even elsewhere.

This isn’t just an academic question on my part, either.  Having lived in Hong Kong for three months now, I’ve grown fascinated with its identity, its people, its systems, and its heritage – aspects which resonate in me through my lineage and my own sense of curiosity.  But among these four very broad (and easily debatable) categories, I’ve found it most difficult to talk about, let alone think through, questions of identity and of heritage.  For me, such questions invariably merge in the shape of tradition.

So what, then, constitutes “tradition” in Hong Kong?  Is it possible to consider something in Hong Kong as especially “traditional” – in this context, as inextricably linked to the territory’s historical and cultural practices?  And where does “truth” fit into the picture of “tradition” as practiced over time – or is this a question that need not be answered in order to appreciate the significance of said “tradition?”

These have not been easy questions for me, and even after having thought through the Cheung Chau Bun Festival in particular they still remain unclear.  What complicates matters is the nature of Hong Kong’s history and its people’s origins: not just the narrative of British colonialism followed by Chinese ‘post-colonialism,’ but also the narratives of migration – internal and external (i.e. from elsewhere) – that are easily forgotten or cast aside by contemporary politics or personal circumstances.  I don’t have any statistics readily available, but even a rapid survey of the territory’s past reveals numerous relocations and dislocations, whether they be across the China-Hong Kong border or across the territory itself (due to construction/demolition, finances, etc).

Down the main praya (pier, boardwalk) of Cheung Chau at night.

This is, perhaps, to be expected of Hong Kong – and if that is the case, then certainly Cheung Chau has been a site of continuous exodus and arrival.  The island serves as home to about 23,000 residents, but in the context of the festival and its blurred past it begs the question: how long have these residents lived here?  Where did the island’s former residents go, and what did they take with them?  And then, of course, the question that speaks to the day’s events:

What’s really going on?

Honestly, I still can’t say.  I guess it’s only possible to keep asking these questions, and to use potential answers as a means of driving investigation even further.

And that’s reason enough for me to keep exploring Hong Kong for as long as I can.