Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Tuesday 9th May 2006

Cheung Chau is a small island to the west of Hong Kong. Originally a fishing community, the narrow strip of land at the centre of the dumb-bell shaped island is a well developed scrum of narrow lanes and houses, which gives way to forest and cliffs as the land opens up at either end.

Back in 1999 the island experienced unusually high levels of suicides. The doleful and despairing were drawn to Cheung Chau, perhaps attracted by its relative isolation. They focused on one particular block of holiday apartments, and, alone in their rented rooms, lit charcoal, slipping away amongst the fumes. The grim suicide statistics led the local residents and police to launch a Suicide Prevention Scheme and more recently, a councillor to propose the building of a Suicide Theme Park on the island. Given the slightly spooky circumstances of my first visit to Cheung Chau, it's a probably a good thing I didn't know all this back then.

The annual Bun Festival, which took place last weekend, hasn't yet been adapted to placate the charcoal infused dead, despite the festival being, in part, a ritual to commemorate islanders killed by pirates and appease their souls which still wander the island's paths. The festival is also a tribute to Pak Tai, a Taoist Sea God, whose beneficence is important to a community traditionally dependent on fishing. For three days the island turns vegetarian, before staging a long and colourful procession which threads past the thousands of day-trippers who descend on the island for the festival, which culminates in the Bun Scramble.

A long night in Lang Kwai Fong meant that, despite my eagerness to get out of my room, I didn't get to Cheung Chau until 3pm. I was just in time to catch a marching band parrumping down the main street, which runs along the front of the harbour. The place was packed, and it was only a height advantage that allowed me to see the band as they wheeled by. I pushed my way through the crowds to one of the narrow back streets and watched as the final third of the procession came through.

Old men in bright red religious robes passed along the street, followed by younger men blowing wildly discordant cornets or banging cymbals and drums to drive away evil spirits. These were followed by whirling dragon dances, believers carrying ornate sedan chairs in which statues of deities resided, strolling Buddhas wearing papier-mâché heads and waving their rattan fans at well-wishers (it was also the big man's birthday) and children, suspended on raised platforms to give the impression that they were floating through the crowd. The children were either dressed in traditional costume or done up to represent more contemporary characters - one hose carrying boy wore blue scrubs and a hairnet to look like a SARS hospital worker. A girl was dressed as a supercilious health official, the base of her platform scattered with chickens - the local government, in an attempt to prevent avian influenza has confiscated poultry from farmers without providing compensation.

After an hour or so, the procession dribbled to a stop, the heads that had been hanging out of windows along the lane withdrew, and the crowd disbursed. I decided to go for a walk around the coast. 20 minutes later, climbing a steep hill into the forest, I realised that this might have been a humiliating mistake. Over the last few weeks the temperature in Hong Kong has been steadily climbing, along with the humidity. Air conditioning units rattle away constantly and a few brave cockroaches have been seen lumbering along the streets of Central. I'd like to have been able to blame the rapidly expanding dark patches on my shirt on its linen material, but the reality is that I'm a sweaty white guy hopelessly ill-equipped to survive in this part of the world. The paths around the island were full of happy Chinese families enjoying the holiday atmosphere, clambering on the rocks and picnicking, not one of them breaking a sweat.

After trudging past the cemetery in the woods I spied a bench and decided to have a rest. I absent-mindedly watched a family of stray dogs optimistically trotting behind each walker who passed by, only to drop back dejected after 20 seconds. I wondered whether it was possible to give up exercise by simply sitting in the sweltering sunshine for half an hour, sweating off fat. I was roused from my thoughts by a slight tickle on my arm. I looked down on it to see about five black thick-bodied mosquitoes grazing. Disgusted I brushed them off, crushing a couple and leaving a smear of blood across my forearm. I stood up as both my arms started tingling and masochistically counted the bites. There were about 15 in all, on both my arms. I had been sitting there for three minutes. Irritated I walked on and was dismayed to see a sign depicting two large mosquitoes and the legend "Beware of Japanese Encephalitis and Dengue Fever".

Back in town I headed to the supermarket and stood over the freezer compartment, pretending to read the back of a packet of peas. Cooled down, I made for the other side of the harbour. Next to some fishing boats the air was heavy with smoke and ash. A large fire was burning before a 12 foot effigy of an angry looking Pak Tai. Old men and women were lighting bundles of incense and bowing before him and the row of cardboard holy men standing nearby.

Across the road on the municipal tennis courts, in front of the Pak Tai temple, stood the 60 foot high bun tower. Up to and including 1978, the bun towers were comprised of a bamboo frame covered with hundreds of sweet buns. Festival goers scrambled up the tower, buns flying, to the top. In competition with each other, they filled bags with as many snatched buns as possible. However, as grainy 1978 TV footage shows, this all ended as the bamboo gave way and the tower came tumbling down in a shower of fluffy dough and broken limbs. About 100 people were injured and the Bun Scramble was history. It has been revived in the last couple of years, but now the towers are made of metal, and only small well trained teams get to grab the buns, all the time attached to the tower with ropes.

Behind the tower, the festival was still in full swing. A small stage played host to Cantonese Opera, stalls sold bun shaped cushions and the temple rang with the repeated chimes of its heavy gong. As night fell queues formed at bakers' shops, stretching down the alleyways. I joined a queue, and watched as the buns were steamed in giant bamboo steamers and then individually stamped with a red Chinese character ("Peace"). Having finally reached the front of the queue, I bought a couple of buns and munched them sitting in the main square, having avoided the TV crews (TVB and MTV) interviewing Western tourists.

And then, I left. Although I was keen to see the actual Bun Scramble, it was scheduled for midnight and after 1am the ferry service back to Central was severely limited. Since it was three hours until midnight and since I didn't have anyone with whom to while away those hours or the ones that would inevitably be spent queuing for an early morning ferry, I jumped on the boat and watched the live broadcast of the Bun Scramble on TV. It looked fun, but I couldn't help wishing that I had seen it in the old days, when it was a free-for-all, without harnesses and crash helmets. It's such a unique and mad idea that, while clearly much more sensible, the sterilised Bun Scramble seems contrary to the spirit of the festival. I think Pak Tai and the itinerant spirits of the dead probably preferred it back then too.

Inspired by Matt, I have put some of my photos on Flickr. Selected photos from the Bun Festival can be seen here.

90 - posted at 17:31:10

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