THE CHEUNG CHAU BUN COMPETITION AND FESTIVAL!
The most famous festival in Cheung Chau is the Bun Festival. The festival is held annually and has been inaugurated since the 18th century – crazy right? The most spectactular and worthwhile thing to do is watch the Bun Scrambling Competition. There is a tower made from buns (the Chinese white kind) and participants race up the tower trying to collect the most buns in order to be declared the victorious winner. It’s really kinda cool & something you need to witness in person once in a lifetime if you’re living in Hong Kong. Here are the details so you can make it happen!
WHAT IS THE CHEUNG CHAU BUN (包山節) FESTIVAL?
It all dates back to the late Qing dynasty. There was a plague that swept through Cheung Chau (an outlying island in Hong Kong) and the villagers decided to build an altar in front of the Pak Tai Temple (Pak Tai is the Taoist God of the Sea) and the villagers would also parade statues of other deities around Cheung Chau to drive off the evil spirits associated with the plague. It worked; the plague ended and thereafter, these rituals are now performed in a festival that has been inaugurated since the 18th century and that festival is now known as the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, which Time.com has deemed it as one of the top 10 quirkiest local festivals in the world and is included in the List of National Intangible Cultural Heritages.
The festival will include a parade called the Piu Sik parade, lion dances, ceremonies and the most famous Bun Scrambling Competition (搶包山). If you’re looking to soak in some culture and experience the liveliness of the festival, I would recommend checking the Piu Sik parade out which also occurs on Buddha’s birthday, public holiday in Hong Kong, in the afternoon and then checking out the Bun Scrambling Competition at night. The #1 thing I would recommend to do if you’re tolerant of waiting and queueing is witnessing the Bun Scrambling Competition, which was pretty awesome! in 2016, it was said that more than 26, 000 people visited Cheung Chau during the day of the parade and Bun Scrambling Competition.
The buns that you will see everywhere on the Cheung Chau island available for purchase during the festival are called Peace Buns (平安包) and they are all white, except for the pink character on the top of it. The Chinese character that is stamped on top of the bun is平安 which symbolizes peace and luck as peace is 平安 (ping an) in Chinese. Usually, they’re available in 3 flavours: lotus see paste, sesame and sweetened bean so don’t forget to buy one to try and for good luck! Restaurants should be serving strictly vegetarian during the festival period, which is in-keeping with the religious character of the event and is intended to honour the Buddha and seek peace and prosperity. It has been reported that in 2017, even McDonald’s on Cheung Chau island will refrain from serving meat to honour and respect the festival and its traditions.
WHEN IS THE CHEUNG CHAU BUN (包山節) FESTIVAL for 2017?
It happens annually and is based on the lunar calendar. The festival occurs from the 5-9th day of the 4th lunar month so typically this festival is in April or May, depending on the year. For 2017, the festival will run from April 30 to May 4 (midnight), 2017 in Cheung Chau. Both the parade and the Bun Scrambling Competition occurs on the last day of the festival, which also coincides with Buddha’s Birthday and that is May 3, 2017. The parade will start & end at the Pak Tai Temple and will be from 2-4pm and the Bun Scrambling Competition will be at 11:30pm on May 3, 2017.
WHAT IS THE BUN SCRAMBLING COMPETITION (搶包山)?
It lasts for 3 minutes on the last night of the festival, which is also the day of Buddha’s birthday and a public holiday in Hong Kong (yes, I know I’ve reiterated this several times). There is a bun tower at a height of 18 meters high (60 feet) with 9000 buns covering it. There are 2 races, the individual race and the relay race & I find that the individual race is more intense. 12 participants (at least 3 female) of the race are given 3 minutes to try to grab as many buns as possible during the time. The buns near the top of the tower are worth 9 points each while the other buns are all worth 3 & 1 point only, which means for the first 60 seconds of the race, the participants will do a fast scramble to the top to deplete the supply before working their way downwards. The buns are plastic so they can be reused next year & a portion is given out as a souvenir to those in the sports ground.
HISTORY OF THE BUN SCRAMBLING COMPETITION (搶包山)?
Historically, it wasn’t as tightly regulated in terms of safety, until there was an accident in 1978 that cancelled the event for 20 so years. Previously, there were more than one bun tower & they used real buns and unfortunately, in that particular event, 2 of the bun towers collapse injuring 24 people as at that time, there were around 200 participants. It commenced again in 2005 & is much more tightly regulated in terms of participant size, safety regulations and etc. Nowadays, instead of the bun towers being made of bamboo, it is now constructed of steel, there is a maximum of 12 participants in the race and the buns are plastic.
HOW CAN YOU WATCH THE BUN SCRAMBLING COMPETITION (搶包山)?
I can’t emphasize how cool it is to watch it in person, but it does come with a bit of a sacrifice… The Bun Scrambling Competition occurs in the middle of the Soccer Pitch of Pak Tai Temple Playground in Cheung Chau and they only allow a certain number of speculators into sports ground and it was limited to around 1500 people in 2016. The competition starts at 11:30pm and you have to start queueing I would say about 3 hours before that. There are signs indicating where you should go so you should have no problems finding it (it’s near the Fire Station). Make sure to bring bug spray & depending on the year, it can get very hot! They give out tickets to each person in the queue so it’s fine if your friend goes out of the queue to bring back food or to go to the loo but you have to be present in order to get a ticket before they bring you into the sports ground. If you don’t get into the sports ground, you can still watch from the outside, but you obviously won’t have as nice of a view.
They start letting people into the sports ground in sections about 1 hour before the start of the event. In 2016, our ticket also enabled you to get a bun (used in the competition) as a souvenir – the only catch is, you have to come back in a week’s time to collect it so we didn’t bother…
Do note that whilst Buddha’s Birthday, the day of the Bun Scrambling competition, is a public holiday in Hong Kong, but the day after that isn’t. That means, it’s going to be a very long day for you if you have to work the next day. There will be extra ferry services right after the Bun Scrambling Competition finishes so don’t dawdle and make sure you get yourself on one of those ferries back to Hong Kong Island, and try to take the fast service if possible. I know this isn’t the nicest, but I try to sneak out a little earlier, such as during the awards ceremony, so I can get ahead in the ferry queue. The worst scenario would be not getting a space on the last ferry and having to spend the night in Cheung Chau… I suspect, there may be private boats that will charter you back for a “price”, but I wouldn’t risk it.
Here’s some footage I took in 2016. Please note that the MC through out the clip is just stating how most of the 9 point buns have been depleted and that the participants should start making their way down as you must have both feet on the ground when the buzz sounds or else you will be disqualified.
QUICK INFO FOR 2017
Cheung Chau Bun Festival: April 30 to May 4, 2017 (midnight)
Piu Sik Parade: May 3, 2017 from 2-4pm
Bun Scrambling Competition: May 3, 2017 from 11:30pm onwards
LOCATION: Cheung Chau Island in Hong Kong (Catch the ferry to Cheung Chau from Central Ferry Pier #5 – approx. 45 min ride)
Not to toot our horn, but if you like what you see & you’re in Hong Kong, join us on a foodie or walking tour =) For full information, check out our site: HUMIDWITHACHANCEOFFISHBALLS.COM. See you in Hong Kong!