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City Weekend

Why Hong Kong’s festivals are not to be missed – from dragon boats to hungry ghosts

The city is gearing up for an onslaught of celebrations indigenous to Hong Kong, starting with Tin Hau’s birthday this month

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 May, 2018, 2:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 May, 2018, 2:31pm

Under Hong Kong’s omnipresent blanket of humidity is a swirling profusion of culture and festivals. Some of these celebrations, such as Easter or Christmas, are adopted from foreign influences, while others, like the Lunar New Year or Mid-Autumn Festival, are embraced as part of a broader Chinese tradition and narrative. Amid all this celebration there are a handful of festivals and events unique to this tiny corner of the world.

As we move into May, the city will see an onslaught of celebrations indigenous to the city, the earliest of which, will be Tin Hau’s birthday on May 8. This week City Weekend explores the celebrations that Hong Kong breathes life into – from annual traditions deeply rooted in history, to more recent customs. While the following festivities are not all restrained by the city’s borders, they are all observed in a uniquely Hong Kong manner.

Cheung Chau Bun Festival

In the fourth lunar month, thousands descend upon Cheung Chau as the island’s residents get busy with a Taoist “Da Jiu” sacrificial ceremony known as the “Cheung Chau Bun Festival”. The tale behind the festival lies in a plague that devastated the island in the late Qing dynasty. At the time, the islanders built an altar in front of the Pak Tai Temple – employing the deity to drive away the evil spirits that plagued the island.

The weeklong celebration begins this year on May 19, with the making of papier-mache statuettes of deities and the sewing of costumes. In the Piu Sik Parade, children dressed as traditional deities balance on poles, as drum beats and lion dancers swirl about them.

The festival gets its name from the Bun Scrambling Competition, where imitation buns are stuck to a colossal bamboo tower positioned across from the Pak Tai Temple. Competitors climb the tower, collecting as many lucky buns as possible, with ones higher up being worth more points. These large white buns, with “ping on” or “safe” stamped on them, are recognisable to all across the city.

Tin Hau Festival

The legend of Tin Hau begins with a Song dynasty woman named Lin Mo who was born with the ability to protect fishermen trapped in storms and predict ocean weather patterns. Upon her death, the northern imperial courts declared her a celestial being for the many miracles associated with her 28-year life.

On the 23rd day of the third lunar month, Hongkongers, and especially fishermen, celebrate the birthday of Tin Hau. As the sea goddess and patron saint of fishermen for a place whose livelihood used to be tied to the sea, Tin Hau is of undeniable significance to Hong Kong. A widely held belief is that Tin Hau can grant wishes and protect against evil spirits, imbuing her with even more significance to this coastal city. On this day, the Tin Hau temples around Hong Kong give way to a riot of colour and celebration.

How Hong Kong has made Tin Hau festival its own

According to the Hong Kong Tourism Board, celebrations for the festival, held on May 8 this year, will be most magnificent in Joss House Bay, Sai Kung, and Yuen Long – homes to two of the city’s oldest and largest Tin Hau temples.

Hungry Ghost Festival

According to Chinese folklore, the seventh month of the lunar calendar is “ghost month” – a time of year when the gates of hell open and spirits roam the streets and haunt the living. It is believed that ghosts with descendants will visit their family members for entertainment and food.

Hong Kong celebrates hungry Ghost Festival

On the 15th day of the lunar month, Yu Lan, or the Hungry Ghosts Festival, is set aside to appease spirits – now hungry and drained from two weeks of wandering. This display of cultural heritage, intrinsically tied to the Chinese tradition of ancestor worship, has Taoist origins that date back 2,000 years. It has been celebrated by Hong Kong’s large Chiu Chow community of 1.2 million for more than 100 years. People tend to fires, burning paper money, food, clothes and other material items for their restless ancestors.

Dragon Boat Festival

Dragon Boat Festival races are held across the world, but nowhere attracts as much attention and hype as Hong Kong. Each summer, hundreds of international teams flock to the city for its annual events. Under the dense summer heat and overpowering humidity, racers paddle ferociously on vibrantly decorated narrow boats to the rhythmic beat of drums. The city’s two biggest races are in Victoria Harbour at the Dragon Boat Carnival, and in Stanley at the International Dragon Boat Championships.

From robots to wizards, paddlers in costume dazzle at Dragon Boat Festival races

Celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, which will be in June this year, the event, also known as the Tuen Ng Festival, can be traced as far back as the third century. According to legend, a disillusioned official named Qu Yuan drowned himself by jumping into a river. Locals made a ruckus trying to scare away anything that might hurt Qu, paddling through the river in unsuccessful desperation.