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By Yannie Chan | January 8th, 2016

Do you know the story behind the Cheung Chau Bun Festival and Chinese Valentine’s Day? Here’s a little cheat sheet those who want to know the histories behind their favorite Hong Kong holidays.

Spring Lantern Festival | yuen siu jeet 元宵節

In addition to a full schedule of red packets, candies, and traditional Chinese foods, the first lunar month also brings us the Spring Lantern Festival. Falling on the 15th and last day of Chinese New Year celebrations, it is the first Full Moon of the lunar year. The day has its roots in worship, where people wished for good luck by lighting lanterns to the gods. After gradually evolving into large-scale festivals featuring lanterns and lantern riddles, it also became a day where couples could go out and singles meet other singles, thus getting its nickname as the Chinese Valentine’s Day.

Mark Your Calendar: February 22, 2016

Po Lin Monastery in Lantau. Photo: Chris Brown / Flickr
Sunny day at the Po Lin Monastery in Lantau. Photo: Chris Brown / Flickr CC

Birthday of Buddha | fut dahn 佛誕

The holiday celebrates the birth of Siddhārtha Gautama, founder of Buddhism, and became a public holiday in Hong Kong in 1998. It’s said that when Buddha was born, nine heavenly dragons sprayed water on him. Likewise, water plays a big role in the celebrations, with devotees participating in a “Bathing of the Buddha ceremony,” which also symbolizes a purification of the soul. Participants eat a special green cookie (欒樨餅) – usually available in vegetarian restaurants around that time of year – which tastes deliberately herb-like and slightly bitter. The biggest celebration takes place in Lantau’s Po Lin Monastery.

Mark Your Calendar: May 14, 2016

Birthday of Tin Hau. Photo: yuen yan / Flickr
Happy Birthday, Tin Hau. Photo: yuen yan / Flickr CC

Birthdays of Various Deities

In Hong Kong, we’ve got lots of deities: Goddess Tin Hau (天后) for safe travel, Han Dynasty Kwan Tai (關帝) for loyalty, 12th century weather forecaster and healer Tam Kung (譚公) for good weather, and Song Dynasty military commander Che Kung (車公) for gamblers. And for their birthdays, a celebration is almost always in order, which usually involves believers making a trip to their temples and burning offerings.

The biggest celebration of all is the birthday of Tin Hau, a beloved goddesses in Hong Kong – she has over 70 temples dedicated to her! Check out parades in Yuen Long’s Shap Pat Heung, or pay a visit to the city’s oldest Tin Hau Temple in Joss House Bay to see the ceremony.

Mark Your Calendar: February 9 (Birthday of Che Kung), April 29 (Birthday of Tin Hau), May 14 (Birthday of Tam Kung), July 27 (Birthday of Kwan Tai)

Seven Sisters Festival |chut jik 七夕

Known as the Chinese Valentine’s Day, the Seven Sisters Festival is said to come from the very romantic ancient myth of the weaver maid Zhinü and the cowherd Niulang. As the legend goes, Zhinü, a daughter of a Goddess, fell in love with Niulang. They were happily married and had two children, but that did not last long. The Goddess eventually discovered, deporting Zhinü back to heaven. But with help, the determined Niulang found a way to go to the heaven to join his wife.

The Goddess, of course, was furious when she found out, and she created a river on the sky (The Milky Way) to forever separate the two. The lovers’ sadness moved the magpies so much that they would fly to heaven and form a bridge so the lovers can reunite, once a year on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month. Traditionally, needlework competitions were held on the festival, but the young and hopeless romantics in Hong Kong would often make their way to Lover’s Rock on Bowen Road to wish for eternal love.

Mark Your Calendar: August 9, 2016

Chinese opera. Photo: yuen yan / Flickr
Singing along at the Chinese opera. Photo: yuen yan / Flickr CC

Ta Chiu in New Territories Villages | da jiu 打醮

Ta Chiu refers to an important Taoist ritual and festival among New Territories villages which chases away evil, restores peace, and wishes for good luck. Villages and places carry out Ta Chiu at different times of the year and usually once every one to ten years. During the festival, organizers usually hold a parade to invite the Gods to join the fun, putting on Chinese operas and building a temporary shrine to entertain and honor the Gods. The Cheung Chau Bun Festival is the most famous of Tai Chiu festivals.

Mark Your Calendar: Various depending on village.

Birthday of Confucius | hung sing dahn yut 孔聖誕日

The Birthday of Confucius marks, of course, the birth of Confucius, one of China’s most important thinkers. But Hong Kong actually never really celebrated the festival – Chief Executive CY Leung only announced the new holiday in 2014. It’s said to be a political holiday, to “repay the debt” to the seven Confucian members in the Election Committee that voted for CY Leung. So this one? Maybe not so awesome.

Mark Your Calendar: September 26, 2016

Hungry Ghost Festival | yu lahn jeet 盂蘭節

According to folklore, during the 7th lunar month of the year, the gate to the realm of Hell opens and ghosts can travel to the realm of the living. People thus often worship their ancestors as well as burn paper money and offerings for ghosts on the roadside. There are also festivals city-wide, featuring Chinese operas to entertain the living as well as visiting deities and spirits, shrines, Taoist ceremonies, the distribution of blessed rice and more. The biggest festivals, including The Yu Lan Ghost Festival of the Hong Kong Chiu Chow Community, runs through the entire seventh lunar month.

Mark Your Calendar: August 3-31, 2016

The Hungry Ghost Festival. Photo: yuen yan / Flickr
the Hungry Ghost Festival. Photo: yuen yan / Flickr CC

Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance | dai hahng mo for lung 大坑舞火龍

There’s more to eating mooncakes and playing with lanterns during the Mid-Autumn Festival. In Tai Hang, over 300 performers put on an elaborate Dragon Dance each year, creating a 67-meter-long dragon covered with over 70,000 incense sticks. Not only is it a majestic site to behold, but the dragon dance is also a long-standing tradition that began about 100 years ago.

How’d it begin? A bad luck streak hit a village in Tai Hang. First there was a typhoon, then a plague, followed by a giant python. The disasters finally came to an end after villagers put on a fire dance for three nights and three days, which eventually become an annual ritual.

Mark Your Calendar: September 14-16, 2016

Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance. Photo: Clare Jim / Flickr
Perfecting the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance. Photo: Clare Jim / Flickr

Cheung Chau Bun Festival | cheung jau tai ping ching jiu 長洲太平清醮

The world-famous Cheung Chau Bun Festival is the islanders’ yearly Ta Chiu festival, in which they invite the deities to the island to thank them and wish for peace. The ritual began in the Qing Dynasty, when a plague hit Cheung Chau and the islanders begged deity Pak Tai to ward off the evil spirits. The plague ended, and the people of Cheung Chau have since recreated the rituals every year to worship the deity. The five-day festival includes a parade, Taoist ceremonies and of course the Bun Scrambling Competition.

Mark Your Calendar: May 11-15 2016 (to be confirmed)

The three bun towers. Photo: Ethan Chan H C / Flickr
Buns in the sun! Photo: Ethan Chan H C / Flickr CC