Far East Files-3. Love Those Buns

For those readers who read the last blog entry, Enthusiasm Journey, you’ve already heard about my adventures on the tiny Hong Kong island of Cheung Chau.  What I failed to reveal is the story that I am about to tell now.

Not far from the Taoist temple called Yuk Hui, I was drawn to a towering scaffold of bamboo.  Years ago, I learned that bamboo is used for scaling buildings due to its amazing strength, flexibility and abundance throughout the world’s tropics. It has long been the choice of scaffolding in China.  However, the practice has been banned in recent years for buildings over six floors due to safety considerations.  In spite of these new regulations, bamboo scaffolds are still in used in the construction of skyscrapers in Hong Kong.  Go figure.

The scaffold I am looking at now in Cheung Chau appears to be about 50 feet in height.  I watch workers high above attach round, tan objects to an inner framework.  A middle- aged man comes up to me and asks in perfect English if there is something he can explain to me.

“Hello, my name is Michael.  I guess you are here for the festival.  A bit early aren’t you?”

“Festival?  I didn’t know there was a festival.”

“Oh, yes.  In just a few days Cheung Chau will celebrate its bun festival.”

I look at the man skeptically.  “A bun festival?”

“Yes,” continues Michael.  “It started over a hundred years ago.  When the plague left Cheung Chau, the people here organized a Bun Festival to express thanks to the gods for blessing and protecting them.  There are Taoist rituals, music, a parade, lion dances, and drum beating.  It gets quite lively.”

I learn that Michael is a teacher from Hong Kong island.  He brought his class here today on a field trip to learn about the traditions of the bun festival.  For years, young men would scale the bamboo towers in an attempt to grab as many buns as they possibly could.  The buns at the top were most prized and thought to give the bun grabbers’ families’ good fortune.  Apparently, the competition was fierce in the quest to grab the highest buns. That led to a tragic accident in 1978 when one of the 60-foot bun towers collapsed, injuring more than 100 people. In subsequent years, three designated climbers, one climber to each tower, raced up their respective towers.  These days 12 well-trained athletes are permitted to climb and grab buns.  Lucky guys.

Bun Squeezers

School girls like buns.

Tourists like buns.

Of course, the gods like buns.

I wander away from the busy preparations and down an alley. Through the open doorway of a small bakery, I see a rack of freshly baked buns cooling off.  These are steamed buns and each is stamped with crimson Chinese letters something like this 北社.  It is all Greek to me.  There is no one around and I ponder snatching one of the buns myself.  Then I hear a voice from behind, “In three days, festival starts.”  It is the baker.  Our eyes lock.  He has read my thoughts about snatching one of his buns.  I surrender a smile and so does he.  “Come back in three days.  Many buns to squeeze then.”

With that I am off.  Perhaps another time.  I learn later that the festival always takes place on the Eighth day of the Fourth Moon in the Chinese calendar.  By then I will be deep in the jungles of Thailand.  My bun squeezing will have to wait for another visit.

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