I had first heard about Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Bun Festival by watching My Life as McDull, an existential cartoon about a Hong Kongese pig who trains to climb a mountain of Chinese steamed buns. A mountain of Chinese steamed buns!?! At first I thought such a thing was made up, until I saw real black & white footage of climbers interspersed with the animation. How odd, I thought.
Coincidentally, my boyfriend and I were in Hong Kong for Buddha's Birthday, the holiday on which the annual Bun Festival takes place on the island of Cheung Chau. There was supposed to be a parade, some other festivities, and the climbing competition at midnight. As a foodie who revels in weird food festivals, I had to go, mostly to see how they construct a mountain of buns.
We hopped on a ferry from Central along with 95% of Hong Kong island, and an hour later arrived on the banks of the small fishing village. The first thing we saw outside the ferry terminal were crowds of people waiting for the parade.
Unfortunately, there were so many people that new arrivals had no where to stand. The police were directing everyone toward the temple. We slowly inched our way out of the throngs of people, and headed toward the food and trinket vendors. People were selling bun keychains, bun t-shirts, and big fluffy bun cushions. The longest line was, obviously, for actual steamed sweet buns with fillings like red bean and lotus seed. After waiting for about 20 minutes we walked away with 2 big sesame buns emblazoned with the characters for "peace."
There was no possibility of seeing any of the parade, which crowds 4 or 5 deep at every point. (I'm a tiny person, so even in Hong Kong this means not seeing much unless I'm up front.) Finally we reach a point where I can see lion dancers. But by then I was already mezmerized by the towers of buns looming in the background. To give you an indication of how high they are, the yellow tip on the right edge of the photo is the top of a pagoda.
From About.com's Chinese Food site:
"The buns, which have been blessed, are handed out to the people on the final day of the festival. Traditionally, men competed in a race to climb up the towers and grab as many buns as possible. In 1978, one of the towers collapsed, injuring several people. The tragic accident forced authorities to cancel the competition. However, organizers revived the competition in 2005. To ensure the safety of participants and spectators, the towers are now made of steel, covered with a bamboo scaffolding to look more authentic."
This is my favorite part:
"Prospective bun-climbers must take a training course to learn basic mountaineering skills."
Because of dinner plans on Hong Kong island, we had to miss the night time bun climbing competition. In case you want to know what grown men (and women) climbing a mountain of buns looks like, I snapped a photo of the poster.
Near the temple there were more bun trees off all different sizes, maybe for sale or to be given as prizes. (I had thought the buns were fake, until I saw some birds nibling at them.) These minature bun towers would make awesome living room ormamentation.
If anyone else knows of other odd food festivals around China, drop a comment!