Bun Snatching At The Bun Festival In Hong Kong

Buns at the Bun Festival, Hong Kong
istolethetv, Flickr

On May 17, a good chunk of East Asia had a day off to celebrate the Buddha’s birthday (Southeast Asia will celebrate it next week). It happens that in Hong Kong the Enlightened One’s birthday coincides each year with a Taoist celebration called the Bun Festival. The culmination of the Bun Festival occurs at midnight of the eighth day of the fourth lunar month, when “bun snatchers” climb a 60-foot tower of buns and collect as many buns as will fit in their bun sack.

Yes, buns. Those doughy things you eat.

The Bun Festival has roots in the Taoist “Jiao” festivals, where communities pay homage to deities in order to foster peace in the coming year. The origins of the Bun Festival itself are vague. The common and possibly apocryphal story is that offerings were made to Pak Tai, the God of the Sea, in order to protect island villagers from pirates. Another history says it began during the days of Hong Kong’s bubonic plague epidemic, when Pak Tai again was asked for relief from the disease.

These Taoist Jiao festivals were apparently widespread before Mao-era suppression brought most religious activities to a screeching halt on the mainland. But the Bun Festival carried on unabated in Hong Kong – that is, until the late ’70s, when tragedy struck.

Bun Towers, Hong Kong
Adam Hodge, Gadling

The new bun towers (lit. translation: “bun mountains”) are steel-reinforced and authorities only allow harnessed, elite bun snatchers to climb them. The old bun towers, pictured above, are traditionally made with a bamboo frame. And in the ’70s and before, there were no harnesses – and no limits on the climbers. A mass of men would swarm at the towers, sometimes shimmying up the inside and bursting through the top, all trying to retrieve the top bun: the bun that conferred the most honor on the bun snatcher’s family; the luckiest bun.

(In case you’re wondering, the buns are blessed. The big red character on each of them means “peace,” which, as you’ll remember, is the reason the gods are being indulged.)

In 1978, one of the towers collapsed. One hundred people were injured and bureaucrats went into action, canceling the festival. It was only revived 27 years later, in 2005, with strict safety measures in place including limiting the number of climbers to 12. Locals complain that the festival has lost its authenticity because the towers are not a death trap and therefore less thrilling. Personally, I agree with this assessment – things are naturally edgier and more exciting when life is on the line. But I would contend, and I think Competitor #2 (in the pink shirt) in the following video will surely agree, that not all changes have been for the worse.

(You’ll forgive my videography, I was mesmerized by #3’s blistering pace.)

Other Attractions
A note on geography: Cheng Chau, where the BF is held, is one of Hong Kong’s Outlying Islands, which generally see far fewer tourists than Victoria Harbour and her famous skyline of hill-scrambling skyscrapers. So when a festival like this comes along, with its quirky competition and photo-op whimsy, it’s almost bound to be exploited to full effect, which it is.

A friend and I arrived with half of Hong Kong on a 30-minute fast ferry from Pier 5 in Central, but the other half of Hong Kong was already there. Spectators were stacked 20+ deep beside the cramped main street for the 2 o’clock start of the Parade-In-The-Air, arguably the most entertaining part of the festival. With a bit of a squeeze, we managed to get within tiptoe viewing distance of the procession, and at that moment it began to rain, so we only saw umbrellas for the next quarter hour. When the sun returned, so did our view, and the first thing that paraded into sight was a small child hovering above the heads of the onlookers, being borne precariously down the street atop a vertical column of bowls and plates.

Hovering Girl at Bun Festival parade
inkelv1122, Flickr

The poor kid looked pretty miserable. After the rain stopped and the sun came out, the temperature soared. You’d be miserable, too – the parade lasts two hours and they’re heavily costumed as figures from Chinese history and mythology and perched (or rather hung up by wire frames) atop a sculpture of some sort. One child was dressed in a finely tailored suit, standing on a sword. I have to wonder about the symbolism of that. On the other hand, a few kids looked genuinely thrilled, as below.

Overall, the effect is quite enjoyable. The little human statues are interspersed with loud drums and dancing dragons and lions and flag bearers. The crowd is as photographically enthusiastic as anywhere else in China, with generous and effusive “ooos” and “ahhs” for the suffering children.

Again, I have to wonder what famous figure this was.


As night fell, the elderly locals assembled at a stage between the towers and the Pak Tai temple to watch a Cantonese opera. However, unlike the spectators at the parade, the opera performers’ pentatonic dissonance was appreciated more contemplatively than vocally.

Meanwhile the other side of the island is all day a far quieter place, well enough away from the crowd control barriers and bun sellers. There are several sand beaches, and the eastern cove is actually a great windsurfing venue (it’s home to Hong Kong’s only Olympic gold medalist – a windsurfer).

A stone path takes you out beyond the beaches to some rock formations on the self-described “Mini Great Wall,” which is actually no more than the stone path you’re walking on. The views are terrific, though, overlooking the cargo ship-spotted West Lamma Channel to Hong Kong, Lamma and Lantau Islands. It’s all quite peaceful by the rocky shore, the surf swishing gently over the stones and little scuttling crabs fleeing every which way. So much so that despite the sunset being on the opposite side, we – and many other crowd refugees – chose to linger a little longer before diving back into the madness of the bun tower crowds, who had already staked a place in the ticket queue for a viewing spot beneath the tower.

The Great Walls of China

China, Great Wall of China
There was more than one Great Wall of China, a Chinese archaeology team has discovered.

Several portions of the wall are actually double, triple, or quadruple walls running closely parallel to one another. This was a common feature in many ancient fortifications because it made the position harder to take. Often the troops would be garrisoned between the walls for protection against surprise attacks from the rear. The land between the walls also offered a protected area for flocks and farmland to provision the troops.

The Chinese team found that the main wall was larger than the others. The investigation continues.

Several walls were originally built starting in the 5th century BC or perhaps earlier. Under the Emperor Qin Shi Huang in c.220 BC, the earlier scattered walls were linked together to make a continuous fortification to protect China from nomadic tribes to the north. The Great Wall was lengthened, added to, and rebuilt several times in later centuries. During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) there was a major expansion during which 5,650 km (3,511 miles) of wall were built. A recent survey found the entire wall, with all of its branches, runs for 8,852 km (5,500 miles). This figure will have to be reassessed now that parallel walls have been found.

[Photo courtesy Francisco Diez]

Photo of the Day – Chairman Mao Portrait

History is all around us, particularly in a country like China. Whether you’re walking along the magnificent Great Wall or gazing in awe at the Forbidden City in Beijing. Today’s photo, taken by Flickr user Trent Strohm, offers us yet another unique glimpse of China’s remarkable history: Chairman Mao, leader of the Chinese Revolution. Trent’s inclusion of the soldier in front of Mao’s portrait adds an interesting visual story to the photograph. It seems to be telling us the ghosts of China’s past are ever-present, asserting their watchful gaze over the present day.

Have any great photos from your own travels? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Ricky Gervais’ travel show “An Idiot Abroad” hits US TV

An Idiot AbroadFresh off his Golden Globes controversy, British comedian Ricky Gervais’ latest project has hit US television. An Idiot Abroad is a travel show for non-travelers, featuring radio producer and comedy savant Karl Pilkington visiting the seven wonders of the world. If you’ve seen HBO’s animated podcast The Ricky Gervais show, you’re already familiar with Pilkington’s moronic and occasionally brilliant insights. After expressing little interest in global travel, Gervais and his comedy partner Steven Merchant decided to send Karl around the world (Merchant hopes to expand his horizons, Gervais just sees it as an elaborate practical joke).

In the first episode, Karl travels to China and expresses bafflement with Chinese street food, toilets, and even the Great Wall. The show’s funniest moments come when he experiences moments of culture shock and weirdness common to even the most seasoned travelers. I’d love to see Karl’s take on general travel problems – airport security, flying, and getting lost – as well as more of his interactions with local people around the world. He seems curious and open to the world, and has written a companion book for the series, which will culminate in an eighth episode with his thoughts and impressions about his travels.

An Idiot Abroad airs Saturdays at 10pm on the Science Channel and is available for download on iTunes. The next episode takes Karl to India to see the Taj Mahal.

Photo and video courtesy of The Science Channel.

Three Intrepid Travel deals for Mother’s Day


Are you standing in stores, staring at shelves and scratching your head? Figuring out the perfect Mother’s Day gift is always tough. In the end, you can’t afford what you want to get her, buy her something that sucks instead and try to look like the thought is really what counts. Every year, you go through it, and the outcome is the same. Until 2010.

Make this the year you do something different for your mother, giving her the chance to get away from her kids for a while. Here are three deals for Mother’s Day (which is May 9, this year) from Intrepid Travel:

1. The Kimberly
You can save 20 percent – that’s $338 – on Intrepid’s eight-day “Spirit of the Kimberly” excursion in northwestern Australia, which includes the Mimbi Caves, crystal clear pools, rare fossils and ancient rock art.
New price: $1,352

2. Grand China
Send your mother down the Yangzi River as part of a 21-day trip focused on cruising the most famous rivers in the world. Mom will get to enjoy the culture, countryside and archaeological sites offered up on this trip, and you’ll save 20 percent ($711).
New price: $2,844

3. Rome to Istanbul
Mom will spend her day on the Greek island of Santorini, relaxing because of her children – not despite them. This is only one of the 16 days on this trip, which includes Italy and Turkey, as well … not to mention a $558 savings.
New price: $2,232

Check out our other Mothers Day coverage here.