The race up a Hong Kong tower covered in 40 feet of steamed buns

The race up a Hong Kong tower covered in 40 feet of steamed buns

The first thing crowds saw Wednesday as they poured from the Cheung Chau island ferry onto a wide, waterfront promenade was a temporarily vegetarian McDonald’s. “Adhering to the rituals of the Bun Festival,” a small printed sign read, explaining that the restaurant would temporarily offer a McVeggie burger and products without meat, dairy or eggs.

Just down the street, the Yummy Castle diner was slinging plate after plate of scrambled eggs with sliced ham to a packed house of locals getting ready for a long day.

For first-time visitors, the scene was a confusing start to a festival that is as easy to love as it can be hard to understand.

In the rest of Hong Kong, the eighth day of the fourth lunar month is celebrated as an official holiday for Buddha’s Birthday, but on Cheung Chau, the day off is spent memorializing a local story that usually revolves around appealing to gods to stop a plague but can alternatively involve dispelling pirates, appeasing ghosts or all of the above.

Cheung Chau is a village of just over 20,000 people with a low-slung downtown pinched between a long sandy beach and a harbor full of fishing boats. The ferry from the center of Hong Kong takes less than an hour, which makes the island popular with weekend day-trippers, creative types and city commuters in search of cheaper rent and a slower pace of life.

Over the years, the bun festival spawned bun towers, and bun towers morphed into televised bun tower races, complete with Hong Kong-wide selection heats and on-belay safety trainings. Parades of gods and relics turned into parades of “floating” children in traditional costumes, and traditional costumes gave way to political satire and celebrity impersonations.

Somewhere along the way, an international fast-food chain decided to stand in vegetarian solidarity with the famous local fish ball stands that shutter for the meat-free days of the festival, while much of the string of seafood restaurants along the harbor continued to take advantage of big crowds hungry for steamed crab and fried shrimp.

Ask why any of this is the way it is, and the answer from locals and visitors comes down to some version of: “I don’t know. It’s tradition.”

Having breakfast at the Yummy Castle this year, Mandy Fong, born and raised on Cheung Chau, wore a bright pink T-shirt. She and her 12-year-old son were gearing up to march with other association members in the early afternoon Pik Siu Parade, in which kids around 5 or 6 stood on small floats and appeared to hold other kids aloft with one hand via strong metal rods and an illusion of impossibly balanced trinkets.

The 2024 float from Fong’s team featured Hong Kong Olympic fencer Cheung Ka Long held aloft by Hong Kong Olympic swimmer Siobhán Haughey.

Given that political protest has been all but banned in Hong Kong over the past few years, organizers went out of their way to remind journalists that there was no aggressive agenda behind the few more satirical displays. One child was dressed as a housewife, holding up a mishmash of recycling paraphernalia in an apparent jab at the government’s new waste management scheme. Another float even seemed to celebrate the recently expanded security law known as Article 23 and one of its chief proponents, Hong Kong security chief Chris Tang.

“It’s fun. It’s traditional. And everyone enjoys it.” Fong said about the festival. Asked if he was excited for the parade, her son glanced up from a game on his phone to say: “No. It’s too hot.”

To beat the heat, parading adults drank cold beer and passed juice boxes up to the floating kids. With the exception of whistle-wielding path-clearers at the front of each group, no one took things too seriously. Mythical lion heads jerked side to side and nipped at children in the crowd, while friends kicked playingly at the white Nikes flitting beneath. A demonstration of martial arts turned into pushing and cajoling for others to enter the center of the circle, until a man who appeared to have had a few drinks flubbed his routine to raucous laughter.

On top of bun keychains, bun T-shirts, bun magnets, bun pillows and anything else that could plausibly draw souvenir sales with bun imagery, edible buns were for sale for a little over a dollar a piece. The buns are made with one of three sweet paste flavors — lotus seed, red bean or sesame — surrounded by about an inch of spongy, white rice-flour dough, which is itself coated by a kind of thin, steam-smoothed skin stamped with the Chinese character for “safety” or “peace,” depending on whom you ask. Martin Kwok, proprietor of the most famous bun producer on the island, said most people bring them home and re-steam them before eating.

As the last kid was brought down from their perch in the late afternoon, the line for the boat back to Hong Kong Island stretched near a kilometer long, full of tired faces and bags stuffed with boxes and boxes of Kwok’s buns. The marquis bun tower race event doesn’t happen until midnight, and with the 2024 festival falling on a Wednesday, there was school the next day.

What those early departures missed was the rowdy post-parade club dinners packing the restaurant patios along the promenade, a Cantonese opera near the main festival temple, the burning of a giant, paper King of the Ghosts figure on the far waterfront and, of course, the tower race.

At midnight, fireworks popped, organizers banged a gong and selected racers scrambled up to grab as many buns as possible from the highest (and highest point value) reaches of the conical tower about 40 feet tall.

The Sun Ferry company said at least 25,000 made the crossing from Hong Kong Island to Cheung Chau earlier in the day, but crowds had dwindled to under 2,000 by the time Janet Kung and Yip Kin-man were crowned female and male champions. It looked like nearly a quarter of that audience was fast asleep on the last ferry back to Hong Kong Island.

Andrew Genung is a writer based in Hong Kong. Follow him on X and Instagram @thisfamilymeal.

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