Cheung Chau, a 2.4-square-kilometre outlying island situated to the southwest of Hong Kong Island, is a city dwellers' paradise: there are no skyscrapers, no vehicles and none of the disturbance of modern city life. However, in the fourth lunar month each year, this quiet island is transformed into a hive of activity when the fascinating Bun Festival, Cheung Chau's main claim to fame, takes place.
A Harbour Free From The Commotion of the City
Cheung Chau is 12 kilometres from Hong Kong Island, and it takes around an hour to get there by ferry. When the Bun Festival is not in full swing, visitors are soaked in the atmosphere of a typical fishing village.
Cheung Chau looks very similar to a dumbbell: it was formed by two separate islets linked together by a gradually-accumulated sand bank. As a result, both the north and south ends of the island are hilly while the central region, the isthmus, is narrow and flat, providing an ideal location for housing. To the east of the isthmus if Tung Wan, a beautiful beach with clear water and soft sand, while to the west is a pier with Chinese-style fishing boasts shuttling to and fro. The distance between the two spots is only 200 meters.
Strolling along the maze-like lanes on the island, you feel as if you have been taken back to a fishing village lost in time. The majority of the stalls lining both sides of the lanes sell seafood and dried sea produce; a fishy whiff assails you pass them. The rest are groceries and various restaurants.
Though the lanes zigzag, visitors will not get lost--simply remember that the main streets on the islands run from north to south down the narrow isthmus. Following them in either direction will bring you to the two main tourist attractions on the island: the Tin Hau Temple in the south, dedicated to Tin Hau, the Goddess of the Sea, and the Pak Tai Temple to the north, where the Lord of the North (Pak Tail), the fishermen's patron deity, is enshrined and worshipped.
Since Cheung Chau enjoys such tranquility and ambience, it has emerged as a popular holiday resort for townsfolk. Many people, including some foreigners, even settle in Cheung Chau, treating this small island as their home town.
The Bun Festival: Entertaining Gods, Spirits and Men
The annual Taiping Qingjiao (Peaceful Taoist Sacrificial Ceremony) better known as the Bun Festival in English, is a thrilling carnival for the islanders. Each year, the peaceful fishing village is converted into a place bursting with joy and excitement: the bay is packed with fishing boats and yachts from near and afar; the streets are decorated with colourful flags; tens of thousands of tourists from Hong Kong and overseas pour into the area, bringing liveliness and jubilation to the island.
In high spirits, the inhabitants of Cheung Chau begin their preparations several days before the grand ceremony. Scaffolds are erected and decorated with multi-coloured paper flowers contributed by various associations and neighborhood committees. Written on them are prayers for luck and good health, messages offering thanks for gods' blessing, and the names of the contributors. On the square outside the Pak Tai Temple, a bamboo stage and a temporary titlear are built, and three gigantic "bun towers" are erected.
During the festival, there is a tradition that the residents stop slaughtering and give up meat for three days. Most of the restaurants on the island serve only vegetarian foods in this period of fasting. Respecting the local customs, foreigners living there generally follow suit.
Opinions vary concerning the origins of the Bun Festival. The prevalent theory goes like this: in the middle of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Cheung Chau was devastated by a storm, followed by an outbreak of the plague which claimed many lives. The island was believed to be haunted. In view of this, a sacrificial ceremony was performed by the inhabitants, on the one hand to placate the lingering spirits of the dead, on the other hand to pray for the gods' favour for the living. The island was clear thereafter. This tradition passed on from generation to generation and has now transformed into a major Chinese festival held in the fourth lunar month.
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