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Living heritage of Hong Kong

Thousands flock to Cheung Chau Bun Festival as six-day heatwave in Hong Kong keeps others away from annual event

Hong Kong Observatory reports high of more than 33 degrees Celsius for sixth day running

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2018, 11:55am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2018, 10:59pm

Visitor numbers for the Cheung Chau Bun Festival were down by a fifth on Tuesday as soaring temperatures in Hong Kong kept people away, with the island’s famous snack stalls apparently feeling the pinch more than souvenir sellers.

Still, thousands flocked to the outlying island for one of the cultural highlights of the year.

The annual event traditionally attracts tens of thousands of visitors, all keen to see the piu sik parade in the afternoon, and the bun scramble at midnight.

However, the city is in the middle of a record run of high temperatures for the time of year, with Tuesday the sixth day in a row when the temperature rose above 33 degrees Celsius (91 degrees Fahrenheit), the second-longest run of hot days during May in Hong Kong since 1963, a spokesman for the Observatory said.

From 8am to 9pm, 20,000 passengers took ferries to Cheung Chau from Central. The total number of ferry trips to and from the island were 21 per cent down on the same period last year, according to New World First Ferry.

Coinciding with the public holiday of Buddha’s Birthday, Tuesday was the peak of the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, which started in late April this year.

While souvenir sellers said their business was unaffected, snack stall operators said sales were below expectations.

"Yesterday was not a public holiday, which might affect the number of visitors," said Kwok Yu-tin, business development director of Kwok Kam Kee, a pastry shop famous for making ping on buns for the festival – Chinese-style steamed buns made for the day with sweet fillings and a red mark wishing people a safe and smooth life.

Kwok said he expected to sell 10,000 to 20,000 buns on Tuesday, bringing the week’s total sales to 60,000.

Running a snack stall called Chi Yuen in a square next to the ferry pier, 57-year-old Yung Chi-ping said the day’s take was estimated to be 30 per cent down on the same day last year.

"I think it's because tomorrow is not a public holiday. If it were, more people would have come and stayed overnight," Yung, who has run the stall for more than a decade, said.

Kit Ng, who has run a cold-drink shop close to Yung's for eight years, said about half of the ingredients she prepared for the day were unsold at about 4.30pm.

"A normal Sunday would do better than today," Ng said.

But outside the square along the street facing the pier, Cheung Chau D&P had a "pretty good day" selling bun festival souvenirs. 

Yeung Cheung-on, 61, who has run the shop for more than two decades, said most of the souvenirs prepared for the day had been sold by 4pm.

"Our handmade bracelets with pendants saying 'ping on' are the most popular commodities this year. Among some 2,000 we prepared, less than one third is still in stock," Yeung said. 

"I think the sunny weather helps.”

As part of the Taoist Jiao Festival to thank deities for protection, and to wish for more peace and luck for the rest of the year, Cheung Chau residents had organised a piu sik, or “floating colour”, parade in the early afternoon, and the final bun scrambling – which gives the festival its name – at midnight.

During the piu sik parade, children dress up as famous city figures and are carried down the island’s main street on stools. The festival concludes later when teams run up a bun mountain erected in front of the Pak Tai Temple, and compete to get the bun at the top.

Current affairs, especially the controversial budget of 2018, were a main focus of the parade.

Among the 12 pairs of children parading were two boys dressed as Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po, two girls dressed as Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and a boy dressed as former chief executive Leung Chun-ying

Chung Hing Street Community Association, one of the parade’s organising groups, criticised Chan’s "confusing and chaotic decision making" over the budget, particularly to do with a plan for cash handouts, which the finance chief amended after his budget speech, in the face of criticism.

Liu Kwan-yin, vice-chairman of the Hing Lung Street Community Association, another organiser, said they also presented a Paul Chan lookalike because Chan “handed out too little cash". 

Also on parade was a girl dressed as a rubbish collector, which Liu said was a nod to poor people in the city who “receive so little help that they have to collect trash for a living”.

Lam Kit-sing, chairman of Sun Hing Street Community Association, said the children dressed as the current and former city leaders were intended as a call on Leung to explain to the public the HK$50 million he controversially pocketed from Australian engineering firm UGL, and on Lam to realise her campaign promises.

"Days under Leung's administration were full of controversies,” he said. “We hope Lam can overcome her challenges to implement a series of plans ranging from the cross-border high-speed rail, the bridge linking Hong Kong with Macau and Zhuhai, and relieving the housing shortage.”

Other children were dressed as top women’s snooker player Ng On-yee, emperors and empresses from the Qing dynasty and characters from cartoons and films.

Yudai Masubuchi, a 28-year-old from Japan who had worked at a local bank for four months, was attending the “very important celebration” with three friends.

“I only know that there will be a lot of buns – a mountain of buns,” said Masubuchi, who only had a bottle of water with him to help combat the heat. 

His friend, Hara Madoka, said the group of four would leave after watching the parade. 

Two local women, a 60-year-old who only gave her surname as Kwok and her 64-year-old friend Li, were travelling on the ferry with a dozen “friends and neighbours”.

Li said: “I am not worried about the crowds. I love lively activities. I have been living in Hong Kong for more than two decades and I have never joined the bun festival.”

Trying a ping on bun was top of Li’s list to eat.

Seven secondary Form Four students from Delia Memorial School (Hip Wo) were surprised when they learned that the festival was taking place, and had been heading to the island “to just have a day off, and do some cycling and swim”.

Joyce Gomes, one of the four girls in the group, said they picked Cheung Chau because it had been four years since they had a school trip there. 

“Maybe we will try to see the parade,” she said.

Kwok Kam Kee was, for the first time, selling steamed buns with cartoon characters printed on top, in collaboration with Japanese agency Sanrio.

Traditionally, ping on buns have the Chinese characters for “peace” and “safety” on the top. Kwok Yu-tin said the cartoon characters were expected to “revitalise” the brand, which is more than 40 years old.

“In order not to wash the tradition away, we don’t sell cartoon buns individually,” Kwok said. 

“Customers have to buy a pack of four – three with cartoons and one in traditional style.”

Kwok left his general manager’s position at a listed company last September to take over the store, established by his father in the 1970s.

Packets of cartoon buns sell for HK$88 (US$11), while a packet of traditional buns is HK$40. Kwok said traditional buns were more popular.

How Cheung Chau Bun Festival in 1978 left 100 injured, and why it was banned for 27 years

Kwok’s two children were set to join the piu sik parade, his five-year-old son Hayden dressed as lawmaker Ted Hui Chi-fung – recently in hot water for snatching a female official’s phone and running into the gents’ toilets – and Hazel, his four-year-old daughter, going as former legislator Emily Lau Wai-hing. Ends