Buns away as scramblers warm up
Cheung Chau native and four-time champion Kwok Ka-ming is steeling himself to regain the 'bun-scrambling king' title as one of the city's cultural highlights approaches.
The Cheung Chau Bun Festival was last year listed by the Ministry of Culture as part of the nation's 'intangible cultural heritage', and thousands flock to the island each year to see contestants scramble up an 18-metre tower to snatch buns. Traditionally bamboo towers were used, but a collapse in 1978 led to its abrupt end until 2005 when metal towers were introduced.
Kwok, a 30-year-old firefighter, failed to make the contest last year after a slip in qualifying, and must reach the top of the tower in nine seconds when this year's qualifiers take place next week.
With the annual festival on April 28, many of the 209 people vying to qualify for the final next Sunday had their first go on the towers yesterday.
For Kwok, who has spent the past year building up his back muscles for the event, there is local pride at stake. 'I'm a native who grew up in Cheung Chau, so the festival is especially meaningful to me,' Kwok said, pointing out that none of last year's 12 finalists were from the island.
While qualifying is all about speed, the final, in which points are awarded for picking buns at different heights, demands strategy.
'I'll climb to the top and get the buns bearing nine points first, then go back down to the three-point ones after they're all taken,' Kwok said.
There are 54 female participants this year, of whom three will make the final. 'It's great to see more girls participating in the event,' last year's women's champion Lisa Cheng Lai-sho, 26, said. A rock climber since the age of 12, Cheng said only around 10 women took part when she first participated in 2007.
The oldest climber, Lau Hin-yeung, 63, is taking part for the first time. 'I just wanted to try something new,' he said, but his first climb proved more difficult than he had imagined. 'I was nervous. It's difficult to place my feet in the gaps.'
Meanwhile, fans of the buns will have no problem filling their appetite, after they ran short last year.
The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department is issuing temporary licences to bakeries, allowing them to set up tables outside their shops where buns can be stamped with a message of peace. The festival's two official bakeries cut production last year after the department banned stamping buns outdoors.
Kwok Yu-chuen, who runs the Grand Plaza Cake Shop, said his customers were limited to four buns each last year, but that there would be no limits this year. And it will be business as usual at Kwok Kam Kee Cake Shop, which stayed closed last year.
As well as the bun scrambling, highlights of the festival will include a parade of floats, poking fun at celebrities and politicians. Some 70,000 people are expected to attend - 10,000 more than last year.
The height, in feet, of the bun-covered metal towers used in the annual scrambling competition