Warding off evil spirits might seem like a nonsensical excuse for a food fight. But in Hong Kong, the Cheung Chau Bun Festival is just one of many quirky cultural festivals with deep-rooted spiritual significance for celebrants. The influence of ancient Chinese heritage, coupled with the melting pot of Confucianists, Taoists, Buddhists and Christians who make up the population of Hong Kong, has had a marked influence upon the religious and cultural festivals now officially observed by the city. And with celebrations for ten of the eleven moons observed in the Chinese calendar, you’re pretty much always guaranteed to catch one of them. Here is a selection of some of the more unusual annual festivals celebrated in the city.
The Hungry Ghost Festival,
15th Day of the 7th Lunar Month (around August 17th)
As children, nearly all of us suffered a grounding or two for being late home from school. But if you thought that was a harsh punishment, spare a thought for school children in Hong Kong. Every year, on day 15 of the Seventh Moon (usually mid-August), the usually lively suburban streets of the city become deathly quiet as children everywhere rush home before sunset, fearful of the warning that they could be snatched by evil spirits.
According to Chinese beliefs, the 15th day of the Seventh Moon marks the beginning of a transient period (Yu Lan) when Heaven and Hell collide, allowing these restless souls to return and seek vengeance for wrongdoings against them.
Traditionally, it was customary to offer rice and prayers to wandering ghosts, however, some superstitious natives believed this wasn’t enough. Now, whole families congregate in the streets to burn ‘Hell money’ and paper maché iPhones, to help spirits become rich and contented in the afterlife. Many schools and community centres stage colourful Chiu Chow productions featuring Chinese opera and acrobatic dancing, culminating in a huge outdoor bonfire where final (fake) monetary sacrifices are made.
Cheung Chau Bun Festival,
Days 5-9 of the 4th Lunar Month (14th-18th May)
If the opportunity to embrace the big kid within and indulge in a good old fashioned food fight doesn’t appeal to you, perhaps scaling a giant, 30-foot plastic tower made of replica buns just might? Ranked among the world’s “Top 10 Quirky Local Festivals” by Time magazine, the Cheung Chau Bun Festival attracts in excess of 1.2 million people to the tiny island of Cheung Chau each year, all eager to witness the spectacle of lion dancing, bun throwing, and colourful floats that parade through the streets of the fishing village.
There is a reason for this mid-May fun and childish mayhem. It all began with a plague that devastated the community in the 17th Century, allegedly brought about by evil spirits roaming the island. In fear of their lives, the locals erected a huge altar in honour of the Taoist God of the Sea, Pak Thai, and began a month long vigil involving food sacrifices (buns), prayers and parades to rid the island of its evil spirits. Legend tells that on the final day, Pak Thai banished the spirits from the island and aided its people with the gift of abundant harvests and prosperity thereafter. The four-day festival culminates in a spectacular Piu Sik (Floating Colours) Parade featuring children dressed as dragons and lions, as well as the famed Bun Tower Climb – open to anyone who doesn’t suffer from vertigo!
Da Siu Yan,
Jīngzhé – Days 3-19 of the 2nd Lunar Month (3rd-19th March)
There are many ancient Chinese rites which have become diluted by modern day faiths, and even extinct in some parts of Hong Kong. Da Siu Yan (Demon Exorcising) isn’t one of them. This ancient ritual was borne during an age when sorcery and witchcraft were practised by a considerable proportion of the city’s superstitious populace – usually to rid their homes of lingering spirits and demons. Self-proclaimed sorcerers and exorcists conduct the ceremonies, which sees hundreds of people gather in gloomy open spaces – like the Canal Road Flyover in Wang Chai District – to simultaneously bash small paper tigers with their shoes. Each tiger is scrawled with the name of a ‘villain’, such as a love rival, enemy or hostile group. The shoe bashing is said to prevent the villain from committing acts of harm against the hitter, be they physical or psychological. A sacrifice of food or money is then offered to the white tiger deity Bái Hǔ, so that he does not inflict harm upon the hitter.
Spring Lantern Festival,
15th Day of he First Lunar Month (24th February)
Like many a 21st Century metropolis, Hong Kong is one of those 24 hour cities that rarely dims the lights once its denizens are safely tucked up in bed. But, if you thought Hong Kong was bright enough already, you clearly haven’t visited during the Spring Lantern Festival, commonly observed on the 15th day of the First Lunar Month. Traditionally celebrated in a similar way to Valentines Day, the Spring Lantern Festival has become a key date in the Chinese calendar, marked by matchmaking games, the exchanging of gifts and lighting of paper lanterns as an open declaration of love to the world. Row upon row of colourful paper lanterns bathe the streets and hanging gardens of the city in a beautiful candle-like glow, making it the perfect setting for a romantic walk, or even a marriage proposal!