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The Festival

The Cheung Chau Bun Festival is an annual Jiaoist festival (or Tai Ping Qing Jiao, lit. "the Purest Sacrifice celebrated for Great Peace") whose origins are found among the Hailufeng people of Guangdong Province in southern China. Hailufeng settlers, who are one of several ethnolinguistic groups that comprise the population of Cheung Chau, initiated the Bun Festival on the island throughout it has become emblematic of the entire community over the years. Today, only particular rituals and functions are restricted to the Hailufeng.

Jiaoist festivals, and the like, were common in southern China until the Cultural Revolution when they were banned by the State. In Hong Kong, however, they survived under the British colonial administration. The Festival origins in Hong Kong are uncertain, though it is widely believed that if first took place in Taipingshan on Hong Kong Island but eventually moved to the outer lying island of Cheung Chau.

The main visual symbols of the Festival are three gigantic icons of deities and three bamboo towers of around 60 feet high, which are stacked with ritually blessed sweet buns. Thus, the Festival has acquired the popular name of the “Bun Festival”. The Festival lasts five days and consists of a myriad of large and small ceremonies and rituals, and religious observances, such as, vegetarianism, processions, parades, Chinese opera, instrumental music, stalls as well as other entertainments all of which are intended to bring wealth, health and happiness to the island.

Spiritual protection

The residents of Cheung Chau venerate Tian Hou (variously, Tin Hau, Tianhou: 天后, literally "Heavenly Empress" or "Heavenly Queen"), the Goddess of the Sea who protects fishermen and sailors. There are four temples on Cheung Chau dedicated to her. In addition, various earth deities, who are given offerings at dedicated neighborhood shrines, protect each street. However, the Hailufeng people are particularly attached to the deity, Pak Tei (or Beidi), the ‘Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heaven’, who provides peace and order. Pak Tei is now the patron deity of Cheung Chau and the Bun Festival especially honours him. The current form of the Festival retains some of the cultural and religious practices associated with the Hailufeng people, including the performances of opera and the rituals performed by a Hailufeng priest. Indeed, the Festival originally took place in the Hailufeng district of the island until the 1950’s. Today, various events associated with the Festival take place all over the island, though the main ceremonies and entertainments still take place at the original site, which lies between Pak She Street and San Hing Street.

Festival origins

There are various versions of the Festival's origins, though almost all of them are associated with the appearance and subsequent protection of Pak Tei in times of plague. Some versions say that it was originally held to placate the ghosts of people who died in plagues that affected Cheung Chau in the late 19th century. In an article entitled, “Reinforcing Ethnicity: The Jiao Festival in Cheung Chau”, historian Choi Chi-cheung recounts the widely told story of a Hailufeng man who beseeched Pak Tei to stop the dreaded bubonic plague. He took a statue of the deity from his home into the streets where other residents joined in prayers and, it is said, the disease eventually subsided. Following this incident, Pak Tei became the Island's patron deity and is considered to have helped the islanders during various crises over the years. According to another story Pak Tei’s agent, Crane Brother, was seen in a sedan chair with its seat, arms and footrest made of knife blades. After Crane Brother’s appearance the plague subsided but returned after his departure. So a local man imitated Crane Brother’s form and once again Pak Tei provided protection from the plague. Similar versions are related by Joyce Savidge in “This is Hong Kong: Temples”. In one version, Pak Tei’s image was displayed and worshiped in 1777 during a plague on Cheung Chau and in another version Pak Tei was paraded in sedan chair in the form of a black wooden statue in the late 1800s and again the plague subsided.

A very different account of the Festival’s origins (see maintains that it was held to placate the ghosts of people who had been killed by the Qing dynasty pirate, Cheung Po-tsai, who was based in Cheung Chau. Savidge notes that around the time the Festival began, workmen digging foundations for new houses found human bones, which were thought to have been the victims of pirates. Following this discovery, islanders attributed their misfortunes to the ghosts of these victims and created ceremonies to appease them. Savidge suggests, therefore, that over time the worship of Pak Tei and the placation of ghosts merged to become the Bun Festival.

Festival participation

The various ethnolinguistic groups that have settled on Cheung Chau have tended to occupy separate parts of the island, though the main social, demographic divisions are ‘land people’ and ‘boat people’. The latter had been disenfranchised from voting until the 1990s, however, since the 1980s the boat people have increased their economic and political strength. Today, Cheung Chau is a more integrated community.

Originally, only the Hailufeng on Cheung Chau celebrated the Bun Festival. Both the religious elements of the Festival and the closing parade still give prominence to the Hailufeng and their customs. The presiding priests and other ritual specialists are all Hailufeng as well as the Chairman of the Organizing Committee. According the Choi Chi-cheung, “During the Jiao, the right of participation is translated into ritual practices: some such practices are marked out by clear indications on the ground, others are articulated, and many observable but never discussed.” In addition, until 1984, a Hailufeng man, Mr. Li, made all the effigies in the Festival and they all took the form of the Hailufeng version of the deity, Pak Tei. Also, until 1978 the three main bamboo towers were provided by the Hailufeng. The Cheung Chau Hui Hai-Lu Chinese Opera Committee and the Cheung Chau Hui Hai-Lu Regional Company Ltd. are Hailufeng organizations that have carried most of the responsibility for organizing the Festival.

Since 1945, other ethnic groups, most prominently the Chauzhou, began to contribute to the Bun Festival. They now participate in organizing the parade and also provide the small bun towers. Cantonese groups play a small role, and the Tanka (boat people) lesser still.

The religious and symbolic status of the Hailufeng’s role in the Festival is illustrated in an incident that Choi Chi-cheung recounts in his article. In 1962, a Chaozhou man, who was a member of the Festival’s organizing committee invited a Chaozhou priest to participate in some of the rituals. Subsequently, the devastation that typhoon Wanda caused later that year was attributed to the ‘outsiders’ involvement in the ritual. Since that time only priests associated with the Hailufeng community are permitted to participate in rituals. Thus, while Cheung Chau’s various ethnic groups have embraced the Festival, key ceremonial and symbolic dimensions of the Festival are closely tied to Hailufeng identity.

The Festival today

The Festival used to be held in April in the first half of the fourth month of the Lunar calendar with the precise date determined by a process of divination. In 2001, after appropriate religious sanctioning, May 5 was established as the new fixed date. Members of the Cheung Chau Huizou and Chauzhou Prefectures Association are now responsible for organizing the Festival. The Chairman is chosen in front of the Pak Tei statue through a process of ritual selection. The Association then proceeds to harness the support of the community and collect donations from residents.

Festival location

Until 1965, the main Festival events occurred at Tung Wan (by the east beach), but then moved to the playground and sports area adjacent to the Pak Tei Temple. This area is located in the district where the Hailufeng first settled, between Pak She and San Hing Streets, which are ritually cleansed before the Festival takes place. The main events are focused around the Jaio shed area located in front of the Pak Tei temple. Both rituals and the main form of entertainment, Chinese opera, are performed for the local deities as well as the living. The Jiao area is divided up into a number of smaller sections for the Daoist alter where the main rituals occur; the “three deities” shed; the opera stage; and the administrative office.

Festival proceedings

During the ritual cleansing of the streets, leading up to the Festival, three Daoist priests donned in black robes and holding black umbrellas walk between Pak She and San Hing Streets (Hailufeng area). They then proceed to purify the immediate area with incense and invoke the presence of earth deities, and, with the assistance of children, distribute incense along the Festival’s processional route. Alters are then cleansed and prepared for the various rituals, most notably the ‘opening eyes’ ritual performed on the deities. Finally, paper ‘horse-and –messenger’ is sent to the three domains of heaven, earth and waters to formally invite the pantheon of deities.

During the Festival, vegetarian offerings are made to deities along with the daily “three repentances and three sacrifices”, which occur at morning, noon and evening. This ritual cycle is interrupted only for other special offerings and ceremonies. Additional offerings are made over the three main days of the Festival.

The climactic parade occurs on the third day and includes historical and mythical figures, stilt walkers, lion dancers, and colourful and emblematic floats affiliated with particular neighbourhood associations and groups. Children, masquerading as characters in traditional costumes and propped up by concealed supports, are carried seemingly through the air. At the head of the procession is the Hailufeng Pak Tei followed by the Pak Tei effigy of the Pak She district. Recent introductions to the parade include non-Chinese attractions such as samba groups.

On the night of the parade, the secular highlight of the Festival takes place – the Bun contest. This involves contestants scrambling the heights of the three main towers to grab the topmost buns that are believed to bring the most luck. The winning contestant is expected to have good luck for the rest of the year. Because a tower collapsed in 1978 injuring over 100 people, the Hong Kong Government banned the contest. After much lobbying by the Festival organizers, the bun contest was re-established in 2005 with the provision of specially built metal scaffolds and the use of safety harnesses.

At midnight of the final day of the Festival, buns are distributed throughout the community bringing good fortune to all, especially to those that receive the most buns.

The Bun Festival today is emblematic of Cheung Chau, as a ‘community’ seen from the outside. But its historical development reflects a community in transformation, in particular in the changing relationships between different social groups. Originally a Hailufeng project it now involves, in varying degrees, other ethnic groups from the island. Part of that involvement and the Festival’s association with a larger collective identity has to do, it seems, with the increasing awareness of the Bun Festival’s uniqueness and in finding it a new purpose as Cultural Heritage in an increasingly modernized world.