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.

7 Free (Or Nearly Free) Things To Do In Hong Kong

free things to do in hong kong

By many measures, Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities in the world.

But for every five-star hotel, luxury boutique and gourmet restaurant, there’s a budget room, quaint flea market and cheap dimsum stand waiting in the wings. In fact, apart from high accommodation costs, Hong Kong is a great destination for budget travelers, with its cheap public transport, vibrant street food scene and plentiful sights and attractions. Even if you’re low on cash, there is never a shortage of things to do. Here are seven of the best free (or nearly free) ways to experience Hong Kong on the cheap.

Take the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour.

Some call it a commute; others call it a bargain way to cross one of the world’s most scenic harbors. The Star Ferry has been shuttling people across Victoria Harbour for more than a century, with its most popular route connecting Central Terminal on Hong Kong Island to Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon. The view from either side is breathtaking.

Fares run between HK$2 (US$0.25) and HK$3.40 ($0.44), depending on what day you’re traveling and whether you’re sitting on the upper or lower deck. Drink medicinal tea with healing properties.

Locals line up around the block for a cup of the famed ya sai mei at Good Spring Company Limited, one of Hong Kong’s oldest herbal pharmacies. The bitter tea is said to have immunity-boosting powers, and Good Spring’s formulation is a result of years of experimentation by the pharmacy’s original proprietor, whose grandson now runs the shop. A cup of the cure-all will cost you HK$7 (US$0.90).

8 Cochrane Street, Central

Ride the world’s longest covered escalator.

The Central Mid-Levels escalator system is the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world, extending 800 meters and connecting the hilltop districts of Hong Kong with the rest of the city. The system, made up of 20 escalators and three moving walkways, acts as free public transportation for Hong Kong’s working classes. Tourists can hop on the escalator at any time, but be advised of its schedule: service runs downhill from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and uphill from 10:30 a.m. to midnight.

Starts at Cochrane Street and Queen’s Road Central and ends at Shelley Street and Conduit Road, with multiple stops in between.

Take a tour of Hong Kong history.

Learn about Hong Kong’s fascinating past through a magnificently curated exhibition called “The Hong Kong Story” at the Hong Kong Museum of History. For just HK$10 ($1.30) you can journey from prehistoric times, to the Opium Wars, to 1960s pop culture, straight through to the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. It’s the perfect indoor respite from Hong Kong’s suffocating heat.

100 Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui

Eat at the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant.

Tim Ho Wan might be the only place on earth where you can eat a Michelin-starred meal for under US$10. Chef Mak Pui Gor, formerly of the Four Seasons, opened this non-descript dim sum joint on a back street of the Mong Kok district to bring high quality dim sum to the masses. The waits are legendary, lasting two, sometimes three hours. But if you don’t mind getting squeezed into a table with a family of five, try venturing there solo between the off-peak hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. I did and managed to get in immediately.

2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok

Hit up happy hour in SoHo.

Short for “South of Hollywood Road,” this up-and-coming neighborhood has a more quaint, intimate feel than other parts of Central Hong Kong. But don’t be misled – SoHo comes alive in the evenings, when its trendy bars and restaurants fill with young professionals taking advantage of Western-style happy hour specials. The deals usually kick off at 5 p.m.

The best way to arrive in SoHo is via the Central Mid-Levels Escalator; get off at Staunton Road.

Watch the world’s largest sound and light show.

Hong Kong’s “Symphony of Lights” isn’t just one of the best tickets in town; it’s also free! The nightly spectacle, run by the Hong Kong Tourism Commission, features sound, lights and lasers from 40 buildings on both sides of Victoria Harbour. Stake out a spot on the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade for the best view, and toast to the fact that the best travel experiences can still (sometimes) be free.

The “Symphony of Lights” runs nightly at 8 p.m.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Budget Hong Kong” chronicles one writer’s efforts to authentically experience one of the world’s most expensive cities, while traveling on a shoestring. Read the whole series here.

The World’s Largest Sound And Light Show: Hong Kong’s Symphony Of Lights (VIDEO)

hong kong symphony of lights

Each evening at the stroke of 8 p.m., Hong Kong‘s Victoria Harbour is illuminated with a cacophony of dancing lights and laser beams, accompanied by a blaring soundtrack of synthesized music. It’s the Hong Kong Tourism Commission’s Symphony of Lights, a wonderfully tacky celebration of the city’s energy, spirit, diversity – and luminescence. The nightly spectacle includes more than 40 buildings on both sides of the harbour, earning it the Guinness Book of World Records title for “World’s Largest Permanent Sound and Light Show.”

Best part? The show is absolutely free.

The most popular spot to view the Symphony of Lights is on the elevated Tsim Sha Tsui promenade, in front of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. Get there early, or you’ll be left jostling with tourists eager for the perfect camera phone shot. A different vantage point can be had from Golden Bauhinia Square on Hong Kong Island, from which you can catch the action happening on the Kowloon side of the harbour.

More photos and video after the jump.

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[Photo and Video Credit: Jessica Marati]

Budget Hong Kong” chronicles one writer’s efforts to authentically experience one of the world’s most expensive cities, while traveling on a shoestring. Read the whole series here.

Hong Kong To Host 2012 International Dragon Boat Festival

The International Dragon Boat Festival in Hong KongHong Kong’s Victoria Harbor will soon play host to an exciting and colorful event unlike any other. Starting on July 4 and running through July 8, the iconic Asian city will welcome more than 200 teams from around the globe as they get set to compete in the 36th annual International Dragon Boat Festival.

More than 6000 competitors from as far away as Germany, France, Canada and the U.S. are expected to be on hand for the event. These athletes will take to their ornate boats, each adorned with the traditional Chinese dragon head, and race one another across the historic harbor with the dramatic Hong Kong skyline serving as a backdrop. Keeping time with their drummer, these dedicated and talented crews will go head to head as they vie for the 2012 Dragon Boat Championship.

For more than 2000 years the dragon boat has been a part of Chinese culture, tracing its origin back to the Pearl River Delta region, of which Hong Kong is a part. Traditionally carved out of teak wood, these aquatic works of art come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Historians believe that they were used in races almost from the time they were first built, which adds yet another layer of history and tradition to this event.

With Hong Kong as its host city, the International Dragon Boat Festival promises to be a wonderful mix of culture, history and athletic competition. While the crews battle it out on Victoria Harbor, the crowds cheering them on from the East Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront will have access to an array of the city’s famous food and drinks. Additionally, the San Miguel Beerfest is conveniently being held at the same time and a steady line-up of live music will only add to the raucous atmosphere.

Does anyone know how to paddle? I think we need a Gadling boat in this race!

[Photo credit: Atmhk via WikiMedia]

Foods of Chinese New Year, Hong Kong-style

Chinese New YearThe Chinese are the butt of a lot of jokes for their propensity to eat “anything.” While a wee bit of an exaggeration, it’s true that the national diet is more diverse than that of the Western world. The combination of thousands of years of poverty, numerous wars, the rather imperial tastes of various ruling dynasties, thousands of miles of coastline, and a diverse geographical and climatic landscape make for a highly regionalized and complex cuisine.

Food, then, is an intrinsic and incontrovertible part of Chinese culture, perhaps no more so than during the weeklong celebrations of the Lunar New Year, which begins February third. And if there’s one place that knows how to throw down, it’s Hong Kong. The city is hosting it’s annual Chinese Lunar New Year (CNY) festival February 3-17th, and in honor of the Year of the Rabbit, I thought I’d give a little breakdown on the culinary side of things.

Quick history lesson: As this isn’t a political dissertation, let us just say that many residents of Hong Kong don’t wish to be called Chinese, which doesn’t change the fact that this article is on CNY. As you likely know, HK is considered a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the mainland, after this former British colony was returned to China in 1997. The term “Hong Konger” generally (but not legally) refers to someone originally from HK, but Wikipedia informs me that the more generalized “Hongkongese” is catching on amongst the Western press. I didn’t see any mention of this being considered offensive, so I’m sticking with it. Please feel free to comment and provide a correction if I’m mistaken).

[Photo credit: Flickr user jinny.wong]Chinese New YearI had the good fortune (fortune being a theme that repeats itself endlessly during Chinese New Year) to be in Hong Kong for the festivities a few years ago, and it proved a fascinating crash course in Chinese culinary culture. I actually went to eat my body weight in dim sum, but found myself pleasantly sidetracked by an orgy of New Year’s foods. I also learned it’s hard to dislike a place where the standard (translated) greeting is “Have you eaten yet?” My inner eight-year-old was also delighted to discover that, while “Gung Hay Fat Choy” may mean “happy new year,” “fuk” means “prosperity,” and “yu” means “abundance,” or “surplus.” Fuk yu! Hee.

New Year’s is a time of elaborate banquets, rituals, and symbolic foods and dishes, some of which may only be offered during this time. Oranges have long been associated with good fortune in China, because the word orange sounds similar to “ji,” which means good luck. Colors are also emblematic. Red apples or oranges adorned with red ribbons are ubiquitous, because the color is equated with happiness, while vegetables such as celery, spinach, and lettuce with the roots attached symbolize vitality. Homes and businesses offer a “tray of togetherness,” filled with candied lotus seeds and roots, water chestnuts, winter melon, and coconut, as well as paper lucky money pouches containing chocolate coins.

In addition to various activities that correspond with the spiritual aspects of CNY, the Hong Kongese go all out when it comes to holiday meals. At the beginning of the week, the Yau Ma Tei fruit market in Kowloon (one of HK’s best dining districts) is packed with shoppers, primarily wives and grandmothers, who come to purchase ingredients for “family reunion dinner.” Celebratory foods include sweet dumplings filled with lotus paste or crushed nuts and coconut; lin gou, a sticky rice cake; barbecued (cha siu) pork meant for offerings at Buddhist temples; pig’s trotters or tongue; black land moss (a fungus representing wealth), and carp (profitable year ahead).
Chinese New Year
The first day of the new year is vegetarian, as the plants are believed to store good fortune in their roots. Each subsequent day has a different theme, and corresponding foods that must be offered. The second day, for example, is the Day of Commencement, in which lavish meals featuring seafood and poultry are served, in order to encourage a productive start to the new year of employment. Speaking of seafood, try taking a ferry to nearby Lamma Island for a beachfront feast, where you choose your own seafood from dazzling displays.

Yau Ma Tei during this time is a special treat. Tofu vendors hawk great blocks of bean curd, live poultry and seafood are chosen and dispatched to order, butchers pushing wheelbarrows loaded with whole pig carcasses weave through the crowd, and dumpling vendors pinch off pieces of dough and deftly fold them into savory bundles.

There is also a collection of food stalls adjacent to the market, where you can feast on roasted meats, cheung fun (rice noodle sheets) stuffed with prawns, or congee for less than the price of a Happy Meal. For more cheap eats, don’t miss out on a bowl of HK’s famous wonton noodles; Mak’s Noodle Ltd. in the Central district (77 Wellington St., 2854 3810; there are also outlets in other districts) is the bomb and will set you back just a few bucks.

The best way to experience traditional new year’s foods, however, is to wrangle an invite to someone’s home, or gather a group for a banquet at one of Hong Kong’s better Cantonese restaurants, such as Tai Woo (locations in Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui–which has a concentration of fine-dining restaurants–and Shau Kei Wan), or Super Star Seafood (Kowloon and Tsim Sha Tsui). I love them both, and they’re 2010 winners in HK’s Best of the Best culinary awards. Both restaurants also have good dim sum although they aren’t traditional dim sum houses.
Chinese New Year
Hong Kong draws visitors from around the world for what is dubbed the International Chinese New Year. There are temples to visit, an over-the-top parade (best described as the bastard child of the Disneyland Main St. Electrical Parade, Superbowl Halftime, and an Asian game show), but it’s the fireworks display over Victoria Harbour that is truly one of the greatest spectacles I’ve ever beheld.

That stunning harbor, combined with the seemingly endless array of places to eat, drink, and shop; bustling streets pulsating with neon, and abundance of five-dollar foot rubs make HK a great place to spend a couple of hedonistic days, no matter what time of year it is. You can always start your new year’s resolutions when you get home.

For more information on Hong Kong and ICNY events, click here.

[Photo credit: Laurel Miller]