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.

Photo of the Day – Temple of Heaven

Today’s photo, taken by Flickr user toffiloff, transports us to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China. The photographer’s perspective, gazing up from the bottom of the stairs at the magnificent Taoist structure, seems to reinforce the building’s spiritual force. A solitary bird in the upper right of the image, floating gently in the breeze, adds an additional layer of visual interest.

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

Chinese Buffet – Part 8: Contemplation at the Temples

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

Besides wandering through shady parks, I spent quite a bit if my week in Beijing roaming the grounds of the city’s various temples. Like the parks and gardens, temples were my serene havens, where I could sneak off to escape the bustling streets. Many temples are located right in the middle of the busy city that has built up around them, but once inside the walls of these sanctuaries, the urban buzz dissipates.

Dongyue, a Taoist temple tucked between tall buildings along Chaoyangmen in the eastern part of the city, was the first one I visited. Not having been to a temple before, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I tried not to focus on the fact that the theme of this place is Death. (Dong Yue is the mountain peak that the spirits of the dead travel to.)

This donkey was one of the first things that caught my eye, but I circled the entire temple before I came back to it for a closer look. It was only on my second pause by this guy that I learned the story behind the Bronze Wonder Donkey, who was the riding animal for the God Wen Chang:

“Being a supernatural animal, it has the head of a horse, the body of a donkey, the tail of a mule and the split hoof of a bull. As the story goes, touching the animal could cure diseases and proved to be highly effective.”

Apparently it used to be a customary practice to visit the donkey for a rub of good fortune.

This was exactly the kind of good omen I was looking for. A close relative of mine back in the US was undergoing major surgery that day, and I had told her that I’d seek out a sacred place where I could send some good thoughts her way. I gave the donkey a few good rubs in the worn spots on his snout and side where so many others had done so before.

A few days later I visited the Yong He Gong or Lama Temple, more popular with tourists groups, and it certainly showed in the number of folks milling about. The smell of incense was intense — that lingering scent will be what I remember most from my visit here. I sat and watched worshipers light and burn the hot pink and yellow sticks, meditating on what meaning any of this had for me.

This temple, the largest working one in Beijing, is home to the “yellow hat” Lama sect of Buddhism. There is a large group of monks from Tibet and Mongolia who regularly worship here. A group of the fine feathered fellas came outside while I sat nearby. They chanted in low tones as tourists gathered around them. I stayed back, on a bench across the courtyard, and zoomed in with my camera for this shot:

I sat in the Lama Temple for quite awhile, listening to the humming Buddhist prayers, and how they seemed to move in rhythm with the snores of the Chinese man asleep on the bench next to me. It was comical and spiritual — there was some sort of spirit moving through the air — a peaceful one, that also had a sense of humor.

Directly across the street and about halfway down a hutong alley from the Lama Temple is the Confucius Temple, which is currently undergoing major renovation. It was deserted except for staff and construction crew, but was still open to the public. I enjoyed the emptiness of the place — and took the opportunity to get creative with my digital camera. While incense was the strong scent at Lama, here it was the paint. These glimmering red columns (which I liked contrasted against the bright green leaves) looked as if they were still wet.:

When I went to leave the temple about 30 minutes later, an older gentleman seated by the door motioned for me to head left before exiting. It turns out there was an entire other section of the temple that I would have missed completely if it were not for his direction. I wound up spending another hour or so exploring the additional grounds and buildings, and spent most of my time in a long dimly lit room near the rear of the complex. I again found myself having fun with the camera, trying to catch shadows and light:

I had stumbled upon the Qianlong Stone Scriptures, the “forest of the steles of the Thirteen Classics.” This collection of 190 stones is inscribed with much of the tenets of Confucian philosophy. The temple staff members positioned at either end of the narrow hall each spoke to me in Chinese — I knew they were both trying to share information with me about these stones, about their significance, no doubt. I nodded silently, feeling reverent, but frustrated that I could not talk with them. In the absence of common language, there was only silence to share. All I could do was walk in awe, capturing visual memories of this life-size stone book:

My hours of contemplative wandering through Beijing’s temples were solitary explorations that uncovered treasures like these oracle stones. I didn’t need to know all the details of Taoism, Buddhism or Confucianism to find meaning in these places. I just looked at my own belief system from a different perspective, and discovered common ground — universal truths about fortune, good health, humor and the power of words.