Bun Snatching At The Bun Festival In Hong Kong

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.

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.

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.

Budget Hong Kong: The Best Cheap Eats For Under US$5 A Bite

Tourists come to Hong Kong for a number of reasons: business, shopping, sightseeing.

Me? I came to eat.

I have long heard about Hong Kong’s famed cuisine, with its unique blend of Chinese, Western, Japanese, Southeast Asian and international influences. The city is home to dozens of celebrity chefs and boasts 62 Michelin-starred restaurants. It’s regularly called the culinary capital of Asia, if not the world.

I wasn’t interested in Hong Kong’s chichi gourmet restaurant scene, nor did I have the budget for it. Rather, I was intent on sampling the city’s dizzying array of cheap eats. Dim sum. Wonton. Noodles. Tea with medicinal properties. Bakery tarts that melt in your mouth. My mouth waters just thinking of it.

Here are some of the highlights of my Hong Kong eating extravaganza, each costing less than US$5 a serving.

%Gallery-173830%Pork Siu Mai with Quail Egg at DimDimSum Dim Sum Specialty Store
Four steaming pork dumplings, each topped with a small, perfectly boiled quail egg. It’s no wonder The Daily Beast named this small dim sum chain one of the 101 Best Places to Eat – in the world.
Cost: HK$18 (US$2.32 at US$0.13 to HK$1)
7 Tin Lok Lane, Causeway Bay

King Prawn Wonton Noodle at Tsim Chai Kee Noodle
The wontons at this Central District noodle shop contain succulent pieces of juicy king prawn. Select the yellow noodle option and spice to your heart’s content.
Cost: HK$22 (US$2.84)
98 Wellington Street, Central

Vermicelli Roll Stuffed with BBQ Pork at Tim Ho Wan
The wait at the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant is worth it: simple, home-style dim sum classics like the BBQ pork-filled vermicelli roll, prepared to perfection and drizzled in soy sauce. Though I didn’t try them, the pork buns are also said to be excellent.
Cost: HK$18 (US$2.32)
2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok

Aloo Paratha at Waka Sweets in the Chungking Mansions
Hankering for curry? Look no further than the ground floor of the Chungking Mansions, which is filled with South Asian specialties like curries and sweets. The aloo paratha at Waka Sweets is greasy, but it hit the spot.
Cost: HK$8 (US$1.03)
Ground floor, past the first staircase on the right, Chungking Mansions, 36-44 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui

Coconut Sago at Ying Heong Yuen
This coconut milk drink with tiny tapioca beads is the perfect way to beat the Hong Kong heat. It’s available for a pittance at most street stalls, but the version at Ying Heong Yuen in Causeway Bay is particularly good.
Cost: HK$8 (US$1.03)
3-7 Cannon Street, Causeway Bay

Chrysanthemum Tea at Good Spring Company Limited
The herbal teas doled out at century-old Good Spring Company Limited are said to provide energy, eliminate bodily toxins and promote general health. The chrysanthemum tea is mildly sweet and refreshing.
Cost: HK$7 (US$0.90)
8 Cochrane Street, Central

Milk Tea at Tsui Wah Restaurant
A legacy of British colonialism, milk tea is a must-drink in Hong Kong. Tsui Wah’s is smoother than most versions and pairs well with the home-style diner’s sweet toasted bun.
Cost: HK$16 (US$2.06)
15-19 Wellington Street, Central

Egg Tart at Tai Cheong Bakery
Bakeries around the city vie for the title of best egg tart. By many accounts, including that of former British governor Chris Patten, Tai Cheong takes the cake. The secret is in the buttery cookie crust, honed over more than six decades of operation.
Cost: HK$6 (US$0.80)
35 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central

Steamed Milk with Ginger Juice at Yee Shun Milk Company
This dessert, ordered hot with ginger juice, has a consistency somewhere between warm milk and pudding. The ginger adds a spicy kick to the sweetness. It is, quite simply, one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten, with a taste that stays with you long after you leave. Though there were tons of cheap eats to try, I ended up returning for seconds.
Cost: HK$26 (US$3.35)
506 Lockhart Road, Causeway Bay

[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.

Dim Sum Dialogues: Little Manila

Dark clouds rumble through the steel corridors of Central – the remaining signs of a level nine typhoon that swept through Hong Kong last night. I dash out of the MTR station onto the wet streets, and gaze at hundreds of dark-haired, dark-skinned people around me.

A clamor of chatter echos from outspread blankets, partially covered by a patchwork of makeshift shelters. Groups of girls paint toenails, play card games, and eat food from plastic tupperware. Some sing. Some dance. Some nap. Everyone is having a good time.

For thousands of Filipino & Indonesian “foreign domestic helpers” in Hong Kong, this is their one day of the week off. The rest of the week is spent working for room, board, and a minimum stipend which is often sent home to family. A large percentage hold college degrees, but a lack of job prospects and a better living standard in HK has lured many to immigrate in groups of three or four, to serve a minimum two-year contract. Among many other protections, the Hong Kong government has made it mandatory for every worker to receive one full day of rest per week – and so, every Sunday, Central ceases to be a part of Hong Kong and becomes Little Manila.
A 2005 statistic reports that there were 223,394 foreign domestic helpers in the city; almost 3% of the city’s population. The flow of workers began in the 1970s, when President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos promoted and encouraged labor export, in an attempt to offset rising unemployment rates. Subsequently, the economy of the Philippines became more dependent on the export of labor, and privatization of labor recruitment groups began to shape the nation’s development strategy.

Around the same time, the People’s Republic of China started making economic reforms that provided for a surge in trade with developed nations. Experiencing it’s own period of financial success, Hong Kong became China’s biggest investor – and a majority of labor intensive industries in Hong Kong moved to the mainland. The gap left by this shift was filled by workers from the Philippines and smaller, but growing percentages coming from Thailand and Indonesia in the early 1990s.

By law, helpers must live in the employer’s home, and are to be provided with suitable living accommodation and privacy. They are not allowed to take up any other employment while under contract, and must receive a minimum wage of HK$3,580 (USD $460) per month. The employers must earn a household income of at least HK$15,000 per month for every helper employed, and must pay a tax of HK$9,600 for a 2-year contract. In addition, it is mandatory for employers to provide the domestic helpers with free medical treatment for the duration of their stay. In an interview of 2,500 workers, 25% reported that their employers had violated their contracts. 25% also reported verbal or physical abuse.

But on Sundays, everyone is in good spirits. The most popular card game played is “Tong Its”, which is similar to Mahjong – either of which I have yet to fully grasp. The game is full of surprises and laughs when a good hand trumps a previous player’s move. An overwhelming majority of the crowd is female, but the few males that are present group together to play a more dramatic version of Tong Its. Dancers practice ballroom moves on small portable stereos, or perform traditional dances – sometimes in full costume. The air is full will a vibrant energy that is heightened by the shrill volume of conversation.

Many girls overtly smile or strike a pose as I walk by with my camera. A few that I stop and chat with tell me that the friends that they spend their day with are a mixture of people from home and new friends that they’ve met in Hong Kong. They don’t want to talk about work, and I don’t blame them – so I thank them for chatting and keep wandering. And as I step out into the wet streets of Central alone, dwarfed by the enormous skyscrapers and rain clouds, it strikes me how comforting it must be to have such a strong community in a place so far away from home.


Harnessing Honduras: the Central American underdog

Honduras usually isn’t the first place that people think of when they think of vacationing in Central America. Big players in the market like Costa Rica, Cancun and Cozumel consume the majority of the market, while many think that other countries in the region are unsafe or unstable.

It’s true that Central America hasn’t got the best record for safety in the world — the government of Honduras was just removed by a military coup, Guatemala’s civil war rocked the nineties, and the entire region is a hotspot for drug trade. These instances are in specifc pockets though, and while some areas throughout Central America are rough, it’s by no means a reason to avoid any particular country.

Taking advantage of some remarkable recent airfares from the United States to San Pedo Sula, the second largest city in Honduras, Gadling had the pleasure of taking a quick tour through the country, reveling in the dense jungles, immaculate beaches and local culture.

The result? A perfectly safe, fascinating trip to a Central American country rich in culture, underpopulated with tourists and quite the bargain for savvy travelers. Stick around while we take you on a quick tour through the magnificent country this week, in our microseries called Harnessing Honduras. It could just be your next alternative to Costa Rica.