Fun and festivals in Hong Kong

The vast majority of the people of Hong Kong are Chinese; their customs, folklore and dreams are in Cantonese. The Chinese world, with its noise, activity, unusual dishes and language, is everywhere, but intruding into this sphere are familiar icons of the West ? sparkling skyscrapers wedged between squatter huts, Christian churches next to Taoist and Buddhist temples, minimalist fusion restaurants beside noodle shops and dai pai dong (food stalls). The meeting of these two worlds shakes and stirs into an invigorating cocktail of colour and aroma, taste and sensation.

Just an hour by ferry to the west is charming, less-frenetic Macau, which returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1999 after some 450 years under Portuguese rule. Here, Portuguese and Chinese influences have combined to form a unique ‘Macanese’ culture, and the pastel-coloured Catholic churches and civic buildings, narrow streets, traditional shops and splendid Portuguese and Macanese food give Macau more a Mediterranean than southern Chinese feel. Macau brims not just with atmosphere but sights, including a host of superb museums.

No matter what the time of year, you’re almost certain to find some colourful festival or event occurring in Hong Kong, the city?s festival calendar kicks in with Chinese New Year and highlights include romantic Spring Lantern Festival, Buddha?s Birthday, the Hungry Ghosts Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival (best know for its moon cakes) and the world famous Dragon Boat Festival, a traditional celebration combined with a fast-paced sporting spectacle with thousands of boats, and of course, dragons! Dragon boat races take place throughout Hong Kong and Macau, but the most famous is at Stanley. Hong Kong’s combined use of the Western calendar and the Chinese lunar calendar can make trying to determine the exact date of festivals a bit tricky and dates vary from year to year, so if you want to time your visit to coincide with a particular event, it would be wise to check with the Hong Kong Tourist Board.

Going for the Buns
One of Hong Kong?s more unusual events is the annual Cheung Chau Bun Festival (Tai Chiu in Cantonese), which honours the god Pak Tai takes place on Cheung Chau island, over eight days in early May, traditionally starting on the sixth day of the fourth moon. It is a Taoist festival, and there are four days of religious observances.

The festival is renowned for its bun towers, bamboo scaffolding up to 20m high that are covered with sacred rolls. If you visit Cheung Chau a week or so before the festival, you’ll see the towers being built in the courtyard of Pak Tai Temple.

In the past, hundreds of people would scramble up the towers at midnight on the designated day to grab one of the buns for good luck. The higher the bun, the greater the luck, so everyone tried to reach the top. In 1978 a tower collapsed under the weight of the climbers, injuring two dozen people. Now everyone must remain on terra firma and the buns are handed out.

Sunday, the third day of the festival, features a procession of floats, stilt walkers and people dressed as characters from Chinese legends. Most interesting are the colourfully dressed ‘floating children’, who are carried through the streets on long poles, cleverly wired to metal supports hidden under their clothing. The supports include footrests and a padded seat.

From Lonely Planet?s guide to Hong Kong & Macau

Hong Kong & Macau
11th edition
ISBN 1 74059 448 7
Steve Fallon
426 pages, 50 pages colour, 34 maps