Bun festival organiser has his eyes on global recognition

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 October, 2009, 12:00am

While the Cheung Chau Bun Festival's candidacy for national heritage status is being greeted with much joy and hope, its organiser has his eye on something more important.

Yung Chi-ming says he would like to see the festival's traditions - including three days of eating only vegetarian food - better observed because they have been neglected by many in recent years.

The government sent an application last month to the Ministry of Culture, hoping to add four Hong Kong cultural events to the national list of intangible cultural heritage. The bun festival, also called the Jiao Festival, is one of them. The result is due to be announced next June.

'Our festival is important. It's very rich culturally so we must preserve it,' Yung, the festival committee chairman, said. 'I would like the festival to be on the list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation instead ... but Hong Kong is not a country, so being on the national list is a stepping stone to worldwide recognition.'

National or global status should be useful in insulating the increasingly boisterous three-day event from the changing world, he said, citing the fact that some 10 per cent of food vendors now neglected the tradition of not selling or eating meat when tourists flocked to Cheung Chau.

'In fact the entire island should go vegetarian for the three days. But over the years more and more people have come and vendors can't resist cashing in. We've come to expect only indigenous villagers to respect the tradition,' he said.

As many as 60,000 visitors crammed onto the island in May this year and 50,000 last year, while only about 30,000 people live there, according to the latest available government figures, from 2006.

Even though the festival is apparently expanding, Yung says there are more and more impediments to sustaining the ancestral way the festival is perceived. 'I think our ancestors wouldn't be too happy with the direction we are heading in. It's important that we get back on the right track,' he said.

While the parade and the scramble for buns are big tourist attractions, they are just two activities among the rituals of Tai Ping Qing Jiao, which are carried out mainly to purify the community and placate wandering ghosts.

Although it has a history spanning more than a century, the scramble for buns was officially forbidden in 1978 after one of the bamboo towers collapsed, injuring many people. Steel towers were erected in 2004 to revive the competition. Since then bun snatchers have had to pass a climbing test before the scramble and must be secured by safety ropes.

The other three local candidates for national heritage status are the Tai O dragon boat water parade, Tai Hang fire dragon dance and Yu Lan Ghost Festival of the Chiu Chow community.

Cantonese opera was added to the Unesco intangible cultural heritage of humanity last month, among 21 other items from the mainland.