The bun myth

May 13, 2014

Cheung Chau, Hong Kong
By Bobby Yip

A baker poses with a bun with the Chinese characters "Ping An", meaning peaceful and safe, inside a bakery at Hong Kong's Cheung Chau island April 30, 2014, six days before the Bun Festival. Each bun is sold for HK$8 (US$1.02). The annual festival celebrates the islanders' deliverance from famine many centuries ago and is meant to placate ghosts and restless spirits.  REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Cheung Chau, or “Long Island”, with a population of around 30,000, is famous not only for its seafood and snacks, and as a small resort for local tourists, but most of all for its buns.

A couple walks along a beach at Hong Kong's Cheung Chau, or "Long Island", where the annual Bun Festival is held, April 28, 2014. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

The Bun Festival is the annual highlight of this former fishing village. Tens of thousands of visitors flock to attend the ritual, jamming the narrow streets of this quiet island.

What makes Cheung Chau’s bun special? The two Chinese characters stamped on it says it all: “Ping An”, meaning “peaceful” and “safe”. The $1 USD bun is in great demand not just during the festival but throughout the year. Initially, villagers made them to pray for safety from plague and pirates, who were active in the 18th century.

Residents string buns together to be put on a tower for a "bun-scrambling" competition outside a temple at Hong Kong's Cheung Chau island April 30, 2014, six days before the annual Bun Festival. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

“Put them in a cool and dry place or store them in the refrigerator, and they can be kept for a year. Steam the buns again and they will still taste good,” a baker said. Like other market driven businesses, the original pure flour buns are now available with different paste fillings. About 7,000 buns each day are made by one of the two main bakeries, a couple of weeks ahead of the festival, for the festival and for retail.

A worker eats a bun while building one of the three 50-feet-tall (15 meter) towers for a "bun scrambling" competition at Hong Kong's Cheung Chau island May 1, 2014, five days before the annual Bun Festival. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Even the organizers have no exact figure on the number of buns used during the four-day festival. There are three 50-foot-tall “bun mountains”, with buns to be distributed among residents at the end of the festival. There are several more mid-sized ones, and there are dozens of smaller ones made by local communities, with their names marked on the buns. I have counted the smaller ones, which have more than 200 buns each. On the cone-shaped bun mountains, the base is surrounded by more than 100 buns, and it goes up to nearly 100 rows of buns!

A cushion in the shape of a bun is displayed at a shop at Hong Kong's Cheung Chau island May 2, 2014, four days before the annual Bun Festival. Chinese characters on the cushion read, "Ping An", meaning peaceful and safe. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Bun-related souvenirs are everywhere: cushions, miniatures, key chains and even fake buns, which are an environmentally friendly option used in the highlight event, the Bun Scrambling Competition. Contestants climb up a bun mountain, grabbing as many buns as possible on their way up.

Residents and tourists look on as participants take part in a bun scrambling competition during Bun Festival at Hong Kong's Cheung Chau island early May 7, 2014. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Residents here have a love-hate relationship towards visitors. “We welcome them, but sometimes just too many spoil the quietness. There are more from mainland China now, and the other parts of Hong Kong,” an elderly resident said.

Except vehicles for emergency usages, cars are banned from the island. Cheung Chau used to be among one of the cheapest resorts to spend a weekend in the territory. Weekend rates for a tiny room in a bungalow have surged threefold; a weekday rental now averages HK400-600 ($52-77 USD) weekday with big demand.

Visitors walk underneath a construction worker preparing for the annual Bun Festival at Hong Kong's Cheung Chau island May 1, 2014, five days before the event. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Besides the scrambling competition, the parade-in-the-air is another big attraction. Three to five-year-old kids are hoisted in the air by hidden steel rods, and paraded down the street. Costumes and themes are taken mainly from traditional Chinese historical or cultural figures. In recent years, there have been more participants with political and economic themes, such as mocking top government officials – an exercise in freedom of speech from the hearts of Hong Kong’s people.

A girl, supported by hidden steel rods, stands on a float parading past three "bun mountains" at Hong Kong's Cheung Chau island during Bun Festival May 6, 2014. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Unfortunately, says a school vice-principal, “there are fewer parents on the island willing to let their kids taking part in these parades, which last for two to three hours … They won’t want their children to suffer from heat or rain, even though it is a proud and unforgettable experience for the kids.”

Rex Chan, 5, receives make up before taking part in a Bun Festival parade at Hong Kong's Cheung Chau island May 6, 2014. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

One of his students says, “I haven’t been in these parades, but I love this island and don’t want to live outside Cheung Chau. In downtown there are fewer trees and bad air and it is too noisy for me. I hate leaving the island on weekends, but there are more people coming in.”

Maybe the message of the island’s special bun is larger than the peace and safety that it advertises on the surface: to preserve the peacefulness of the island lifestyle as long as possible, in contrast to the busy-ness of the financial hub that is downtown Hong Kong.

Small "bun mountains" are displayed in front of former donors, most of whom have deceased, inside a community center at Hong Kong's Cheung Chau island April 30, 2014, six days before the annual Bun Festival. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

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