The Cheung Chau Bun Festival draws thousands of people every year

By Lilian Min
Updated May 07, 2018
Credit: Photo by MN Chan via Getty Images

Cheung Chau, an island located on the southern fringe of Hong Kong, is not traditionally thought of as one of the wonders of the world. Perhaps that’s because the people compiling those lists don’t know about the annual spring spectacle of the Bun Tower.

Here, “bun” isn’t referring to the lightly browned rolls made infamous in nursery rhymes, as in “hot cross." It's “bun,” as in the fluffy white steamed buns popularized in East Asian, particularly Chinese, cuisine. Known in Mandarin as mantou and in Cantonese as maan tau, 馒头 are the stars of Cheung Chau’s Bun Festival and tie together a host of cultural, historical, religious, and culinary traditions in a once-dangerous, still very much bizarre ritual: The climbing of the Bun Tower, a 60-foot monument covered in thousands of (fake) buns.

Buns belong to a pantheon of foods that carry special cultural significance throughout the region; others include mochi (traditionally a Japanese New Year food) and zong zi (sticky rice wrapped and steamed in lotus leaves, traditionally eaten to celebrate the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival). In the case of the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, as of 2000, the festival is tied to the historical birthday of Buddha—generally celebrated early in the fourth month of the lunar year, which translates to late April to early May. Yet the actual beginnings of the Cheung Chau Bun Festival originate from a different spiritual practice and celebrate another deity. That figure is Pak Tai (Hei Di in Mandarin), one of the highest-ranking deities in Taoist/traditional folklore.

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The story goes that in the 18th century, Cheung Chau was hit with a devastating plague. (In other versions of the story, pirates invade the island.) In the face of calamity, the heavily sea-dependent community called on Pak Tai for salvation, honoring him with an altar in front of his temple and parading his and other god icons throughout the island. When he delivered, Cheung Chau began celebrating him and other Taoist icons like the sea goddess Tin Hau (Ma Zu) through rituals that, over time, became codified as a week-long celebration.

Along with common regional celebrations like lion dances and drum ceremonies, Cheung Chau boasts the Floating Silk Parade, wherein young children are dressed up as gods and then hoisted onto floating platforms. The following evening, worshippers burn giant a paper effigy meant to symbolize the “King of the Ghosts.” And then it begins: The bun snatching.

There are other food-related traditions as part of the festivities; for three days, the entire island goes vegetarian. Even the local McDonald’s serves mushroom burgers instead of Big Macs. But the true jewels of the Bun Festival are the buns. They all come from a single bakery, Kwok Kam Kee, which begins prepping for the festival a month before and makes over 60,000 buns for the occasion. The buns come in three flavors—sesame, lotus, and red bean paste—and are stamped with the characters for “peace.” Though other local eateries also benefit from the festival, none flourish more so than Kwok Kam Kee, whose owner Kwok Kam Chuen earns an estimated $65,000 in the week of the festivities.

While anyone stopping by the festival can nosh on a celebration bun, only 12 lucky (and vetted) athletes get to participate in the festival’s closing bun snatching race. A 60-foot steel scaffolding tower, named the Bun Tower, is peppered with 9,000 plastic “buns,” and at the stroke of midnight after the effigy burning, the chosen twelve have three minutes to race up the structure in the hopes of grasping the tallest bun, which is assumed as a portend of good fortune for the bun snatcher and their family.

Credit: Photo by China Photos via Getty Images

This bun snatching and tower system isn’t how the whole process used to work. Until 1978, there were three Bun Towers made of bamboo scaffolding, and a much more lax scaling process. Once the climbers finished their racing, the remaining buns would be thrown down to the crowds. But when one of the towers collapsed, injuring over 100 people and killing 30, the government banned the practice entirely. It took local petitioning on the grounds of tradition, a sentiment catalysed by the 2001 animated Hong Kong film My Life as McDull, for officials to lift their ban on the bun towers in 2005. In 2007, the buns were replaced with plastic ones for food safety and waste reasons. And now, thousands of people watch the spectacle unfold at the close of the festival.

Like so many esoteric cultural practices, the Cheung Chau Bun Festival has, through time and tragedy and the lure of tradition, shifted considerably. But if you happen to be nearby, you have to witness what remains one of the strangest and most delightful food celebrations on the planet.