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By Yannie Chan | May 2nd, 2016

To really understand the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, you have to know that it’s not just about buns. At its heart, the festival is actually a form of Ta Chiu, a Taoist ritual that restores peace and ushers in good luck.

It all started with a serious plague, which struck Cheung Chau back in the 17th-century Qing Dynasty. Villagers asked for help from the deity Pak Tai, setting up an altar in front of the temple and parading the statues of Gods around the island to chase away the devil. The plague ended miraculously after the march, and villagers thus decided to ta chiu every year during the fourth lunar month — thus the Bun Festival!

The festival consists of three main parts. First, the parades of deities, called piu sik (飄色) in Chinese. The idea is to parade the deities around the island, so they can inspect every street and corner and chase away evil spirits. Children under 4 are dressed as legendary deities or modern celebrities, and then they stand on steel frames that make it seem like they’re floating mid-air. At the end of the parade, there’s a very exciting bit: people sprint back to the Pak Tai Temple, hoping to become the first to greet and honor the deity.

Piu sik parade. Photo: Ethan Chan H C/Flickr
Piu sik parade. Photo: Ethan Chan H C/Flickr

The second part of the Bun Festival is the honoring of the dead. This ceremony takes place at night, following the parade. After this ceremony, the villages burn a big paper effigy of the King of the Ghosts, and then buns are distributed among the villagers to share the good fortune.

Bun scrambling competition. Photo: Scott Edmunds/Flickr
Bun scrambling competition. Photo: Scott Edmunds/Flickr

The final part, and also the most well-known, is the bun-snatching. At the very beginning, the buns were made and stacked in front of the temple as an offering to Pak Tai.

Villagers gradually began to snatch the bun for it represents good fortune, and families sent out their strongest to grab buns from as high as possible. In a tragic turn of events, one of the bun tower collapsed in 1978 and injured more than 100 people. Bun-scrambling was banned afterwards, until 2005, when it was reinstated as a monitored competition. Only a handful of people are allowed to participate.

While many were happy to see the traditional ritual return, critics argued that turning bun-snatching into a sport and tourism event erased its original meaning: to bring villagers peace and health.

The Bun Festival is taking place May 11-15, 2016! Check out the parade and bun-scrambling festival on May 14.