As the world moves on from the shroud of Covid, and Hong Kong becomes the last city to completely lift its pandemic measures, the government has announced the return of the Bun Scrambling Contest in Cheung Chau after three years of hiatus. It has never been halted since 2005, 27 years after the race was banned due to safety concerns. The finalists’ scrambles will take place at late night on 26 May, the Buddha’s birthday, at Pak Tai Temple Playground football field.
Anyone above 18 with good health and physical fitness can sign up before March 20, but Cheung Chau residents and those working or studying there will be prioritized in the lucky draw, which will be organized if the applicant number exceeds the quota of 200. It will be followed by trainings beginning on 16 April and a round of preliminary contests will be held on 30 April to select 12 finalists. Only 1,000 citizens will be allowed to watch the contest at the venue perimeters.
Hong Lan Bakery is one of the two bakeries in Cheung Chau that are responsible for the production of the buns on the bun towers, an old name in their business.
“Every day our Ping On buns sell out rapidly, even when it’s not during the Da Jiu Festival. Tourists like buying our buns as souvenirs to experience our culture or a prop for a photo. Residents usually buy it for religious purposes,” said Miss Cheng from the bakery. “Every year, the week before Da Jiu Festival, we produce almost 20,000 buns for selling and contest purposes.” Their buns are on limited supply from 14:30 to 17:00 every day.
The second bakery in charge of bun production is Kwok Kam Kee Bakery. Their owner, Martin- born and raised on the island, has put a lot of effort into promoting their Cheung Chau traditions by offering baking courses. To attract the younger generation, they have introduced vegetarian Ping On buns and Japanese cartoon-inspired buns.
As the festive day approaches, residents of Cheung Chau are getting excited for the biggest event of the year. Mrs Wong, owner of the souvenir shop Little Island Little Taste next to the pier, is another Cheung Chau resident who never skips the Bun Scrambling festival.
“I have missed the Bun Scrambling Contest indeed,” said Wong. “The day of the festival brings in a lot of business for us. Suspending it for three consecutive years has definitely dented our income, other than the obvious reasons brought by Covid.” Apart from economic concerns, as a resident, she always takes pride on her birthplace’s unique culture and its citizens’ active participation in it.
This intangible culture has been preserved very well in my opinion. I’ve always gone in person to support the contest. Even though I’m now over 60 and have seen it so many times, I’m never bored of it. It never ceases to excite me because they add something new to it, new elements, new decorations each year.
– Mrs Wong, owner of the souvenir shop Little Island Little Taste
The Cheung Chau Da Jiu festival and the Bun Scrambling Contest have been included in the third batch of the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of China since 2011. Yet, a lot of its traditional elements have been altered throughout the three centuries since its birth. This is largely a result of a major accident on 9 May, 1978, when the festival turned into a tragedy. Two bun towers tipped over during the competition, when over 300 participants were climbing on them, resulting in 24 injuries, some severe.
Since then, the steamed buns have been stamped with the red characters “Ping On”, praying for safety. Before this, they were for the Gods and the dead.
Before the tragedy, around 16,000 buns were up for grabs on the tower because it was traditionally believed that the more buns you acquire, the more blessings you will receive. Back in the times, hundreds of men would scramble up the tower at once, made of bamboo scaffolding, with no safety requirements. On modern bun towers, the number of lucky buns has decreased to approximately 6,000. To prevent serious injuries, only 12 climbers can be on the tower at the same time. Prior to that, they have to undergo safety training organized by China Hong Kong Mountaineering and Climbing Union Limited. The internal support structure of the bun tower has been strengthened by a steel frame, a design approved by engineers. Its original appearance has been retained with an external layer of bamboo scaffolding.
It is also noteworthy that the buns on the competition tower are no longer real buns. A rainy festival day in 2006 resulted in them turning mouldy and smelly, posing great danger to the athletes taking part in the bun scrambling event. Hence, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department announced the replacement of 8,000 plastic fake buns instead for the competition tower, but three other towers with authentic stuffed steamed buns will be set up in front of the temple for ritual and cultural preservation purposes.
“Hopefully this time’s suspension won’t result in any changes to our tradition’s authenticity,” said Cheung Ka-yi, the owner of Kang Kee store, “I hope more people, even people outside of Hong Kong, can learn about this unique tradition of Cheung Chau that’s not seen anywhere else.”
She has also expressed the common concern of many Cheung Chau residents on the day of the festival.
“I think the government should provide better facilities and arrangements for us,” said Cheung, “imagine how inconvenient it is for residents who have to travel out of the island to work on that day. They will be stuck at the pier the whole morning, crowded by swarms of tourists and missing their ferry.”
We’ve voiced our struggle and proposed our suggestion to the government, but they still haven’t arranged an exclusive channel for residents taking ordinary ferries, only fast ferry services provide exclusive channels, which is double the price.
Cheung Ka-yi, the owner of Kang Kee store
Fast and ordinary ferries arrive on the island pier alternately, so residents who are rushing to work, but have missed the ordinary ferry, will be coerced to pay double to take the faster one.
Miss Mok, a worker at the Pak Tai Temple, also voiced expectations for improvement in terms of preparation work.
“For the temple, we do not have any crowd control measures, but I personally think it would be better if we do so since it’s such a cramped space here and the offering tables quickly fill up during the contest day,” said Mok.
“Indeed it has caused a lot of inconvenience for us residents on that day, but I personally don’t mind because it’s a once-in-a-year occasion. I value its continuation much more,” said Mrs. Wong from the souvenir store, “this tradition has become a part of my identity as a Cheung Chau resident and I cannot imagine it disappearing one day.”
Featured Image Credit: Hazel Ho