Friday, May 20, 2011

The Bun Festival

Cheung Chau in Cantonese means "Long Island" and  is known for a few things.  Back in the 18th century an infamous pirate was said to have had  his base there and you can visit the cave where he supposedly stored his ill gotten gains!.  Then there is a 3000 year old rock carving which suggests that it was inhabited at least as early as the Neolithic period.  It was a thriving fishing village inhabited by Hakka and Cantonese settlers, who supplemented their income with smuggling and piracy! Today fishing is still a big industry and some of the people still live on junks and sampans anchored in the harbor. The island is sort of a dumbbell shape and the narrow section in the middle is where the village is and the public beaches.  The harbor itself is large and has long rock barriers that protect the land from the waves of a typhoon.
The harbor is to the right and the beaches on the left.  As you can see it is very narrow in the middle of the island, with two hills on either end.
There are two ferries you can take from Central.   The fast ferry takes about 35 min. and the ordinary one takes about an hour.  We took the fast one over and the slower one back.  The slower one is bigger and isn't air conditioned.
The streets are very narrow and because of all the extra people, were very crowded.
Because of the narrow streets, fire, police, and ambulance are the only vehicles on the island.  These little cars were so cute because they looked like Tonka Toys!

The boat in the middle has fish drying on a screen.  There is so much dried fish sold everywhere here.  I don't know how they can possibly eat it all!
We watched as this couple came from their boat to shore by using this pulley system.  As you can see the boats sit all over the harbor with no piers to tie up to or any other way to get to shore.

On Tuesday May 10th it was a national holiday here because it was Buddha's Birthday.  The Bun Festival was also being celebrated, so Jocelyn, Rachel and I went to see what it was all about.  It is a 4 day long Taoist religious festival.  The legend is, that in the Quing dynasty a plague came upon the islands, and the people of Cheung Chau carried the Taoist Deity through the island and they weren't touched by the plague, so to honor him they built the Pak Tai Temple.  The Priest declares that there be 4 days of eating only vegetarian, and there are many ceremonies throughout these days. The buns are significant because there is no meat eaten or killed during this time.  On the last day there is a huge parade.  The festival is around 100 years old.  It used to be that the tower was made from real buns, and any who wanted to, could climb the tower at the specified time to grab buns, but in 1978 the tower collapsed and a lot of people were injured and killed so the climbing competition was banned till 2005.  Now the tower is made from steel and bamboo and has plastic buns.  Only a few climbers are allowed at one time, and they use mountaineering gear.  The buns at the top are apparently the luckiest ones, so they are the most sought after!
The couple next to me both spoke English, so they explained which buns had what filling.  I bought one with red bean paste and one with lotus seed paste.  Both were really good. The filling didn't have that much flavor, but was sweet.  We saw this couple later and they were eating tofu ice cream which they said was wonderful!

The buns are steamed in these steamers!  Everyone was loading up on buns!  Apparently they are only allowed to make so many and there are only two stores who specialize in them, so they were a hot item!!  A red stamp is put on the top that has different lucky sayings on them.
I think this is some kind of religious ceremony at the Temple.  Even though it seems quite commercial, there is a religious meaning behind most of it.
Jocelyn and Rachel in front of the smaller towers.

 We stopped for lunch at McDonald's, and guess what, they don't sell anything but a vegetarian burger there during the festival! (which we didn't realize, as we ordered chicken nuggets)  It wasn't horrible, but l don't know if I'd want it again!  The man in the striped shirt was very helpful and cleared a table for us to sit down.  His son, in the blue shirt, spoke good English and explained some of the Festival for us.

We didn't stay for the whole parade, but watched as they were getting ready for it.  The temp. was 32.5 and humid, so we decided we'd all had enough of the crowds and heat. The little ambulance had a busy time of it with people fainting!
A big part of the parade are the children dressed up in all kinds of costumes, and they are on stilts so they "float" above the crowd.  They represents the many Gods of the Taoist religion. We watched some of them getting ready and they have metal leg braces they stand in to keep them steady, but its still quite a balancing act!  I wanted to put all theses pictures in because the kids are so cute and the costumes are really amazing and beautiful.

Priests l think!
The dragons are amazing.  It must be so hot bouncing around under all the cloth.

There is always so many symbols and pageantry.  Too bad we don't understand most of it! 
 See the guys feet sticking out under the dragon?  I don't know how they balance on the pole and still make the dragon look like he's moving around!

The big finale comes at midnight on the last day, when the climbers rush up the 60 foot tower and try and collect as many buns as possible!!  There are different teams competing against each other to be crowned the King and Queen of the Bun Festival!
Heading home on the slow ferry past the typhoon barriers.

 What a fascinating and fun day we had at Cheung Chau.  I would like to go back and just wander around when there aren't so many people, and you could really check out the town and surrounding area, and maybe find some pirate treasure!!

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