All “Buns” and “Floating Colours”

All “Buns” and “Floating Colours”

2023-05-28 by Xiaoyun Li & Lucy Cheng


For the past three years, people in Hong Kong have surely missed the feast! Finally, we were having fun, packing up to  Cheung Chau; heading for “Floating Colour Parade”.

“This feels great, HK has just ended the Covid-19 restrictions. That’s why, for all these people, and having such a fun time!” a visitor from Scotland told us.

If this is your first time to Cheung Chau (a popular outlying island SW of Hong Kong Island), you would probably be surprised by the huge flock of people. Especially with the return trip after 4 pm, the long line-up back to Central could have snaked to 300m.  What makes Cheung Chau so special? If this isn’t for the overhead sun, the aroma of lucky buns, the natural beauty of mountains, curves of river, and the distance that sets the small community apart from the noise in the city.

Cheung Chau Da Jiu Festival, commonly known as the “Bun Festival”, is a long-held tradition and custom in Cheung Chau Island. It is a big feast! That day, a series of folk arts and road shows, including the “floating colours” parade and the Bun Scrambling contest went on. Though, for the past three years, because of COVID-19, the activities were either simplified or canceled right out. This year was the first year, the celebration and feast were making a happy return.

One thing that needs mentioning though, for this year’s Da Jiu Festival, something quite unusual happened. Due to a shortage with manpower, the previously commissioned bamboo contractor called a quit. It followed that the construction works for the three giant bun towers had to be dropped; the previous 60-foot full-length bamboo towers were replaced by three large banners (that have the same actual height as before) as the backdrop.  Another three shorter bun towers (made with metal), from a different contractor, took up the front space for the real climb. One usual custom in the past is that, on the date of the event, around 20,000 lucky buns will be disturbed for free. This year, the same old custom followed.

Want to know the curious legend behind “Bun Scrambling” contest?

Back in the 18th century, Cheung Chau was devastated by plague and pirates, locals brought their patron and Deity, Pak Tai, to the island. Pak Tai, assumed the role of defender for Cheung Chau, paraded through the village lanes. This is how the custom of “Floating Colour Parade” and “bun-scrambling” come around, as a tribute to the good deeds from Pak Tai.

On the day of bun scrambling, usually, three bun towers made of bamboo will be set up (except this year). Buns, all in edible shape, will be stacked along the path of climb, and right up to the peak of the bun towers. On the tiny face of every bun, “Ping An” (literally means “peace and safety” in Chinese) is printed. Suppose the more buns you can grab (refers to the participants), the more good fortune you must deserve.

“I wonder what would they do with the buns after? I’ve bought one today, it’s delicious!” another visitor from France has this question for us.

The annual bun scrabbling contest was halted between 1978 to 2005 (altogether 27 years in between) after two 60-foot towers collapsed and a handful of people got injured. Another break is between 2019 to 2022 when Covid spread.

What about the “Floating Colour Parade”?  

We were on the spot that day; we took the ship and reached here at around 10 am. The parade is part of the celebration activities. Visitors came to buy buns and watched the lion dance. Shopkeepers certainly shouldn’t be disappointed! Imagine all the good business this could bring – all the people, all the flow. Spectators started to cheer. Children dressed up for the occasion, even well-known government officials, Paul Chan Mo-po (Financial Secretary), and Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee (Executive Council convener) came and joined the crowd.

Coming toward us, some young kids and people on costumes, stood atop a special-made platform, and played the heroic/legendary figures. This seemed to us, performers were floating above a sea of people, navigating swiftly in the middle of narrow lanes. They must have known all eyes on them. Suppose that is how the parade has this name: “Floating Color”.

“I’m very excited, this event is so grand, lots of people, good atmosphere, environment, best for cultural exchange,” another visitor from S. Africa.

In 2011, Cheung Chau Bun Festival was listed as the third batch of Chinese National Intangible Cultural Heritage. Not coincidentally, it is also selected as “Top 10 weirdest festivals in the world” by the Time magazine.

 “This is certainly memorable, lots of past history and custom in it,” another visitor from Ukraine.

Due to the fast-paced development in the city centre, young people run for modernity rather than simplicity from the rural. However, to the many locals, multiplied by all folks who came here from everywhere, the unique history, cultural meaning of the “buns”, the “floating colours”, together with the social life, the community spirit must speak the notes from their hearts.