Hong Kong stages bizarre 'bun scrambling' festival

Tens of thousands of people flocked to a tiny Hong Kong island Tuesday for a bizarre ancient ritual known as "bun scrambling", part of a religious festival to celebrate victory over evil.

Huge crowds converged on Cheung Chau, a picturesque fishing village, for the annual "Bun Festival", a celebration unique to the southern Chinese city.

Legend has it that the event's all-important sweet buns bring good luck to the island's fishermen, protecting them from the spirits of pirates that once lurked the region by satisfying hungry ghosts.

The ceremony is also held in honour of Pak Tai, a Taoist god of the sea, said to drive away evil spirits.

The festival's centrepiece comes when the clock strikes midnight and a dozen contestants scramble up three towers studded with some 9,000 buns in a race to grab as many of the holy items as they can.

The contestants, nine men and three women, have three minutes to pull buns from the 14-metre (46 foot) tower, with pastries at the top bringing the most points.

Another festival highlight is a "parade of floats" where local children, decked out in elaborate make-up and costumes depicting mythological figures and deities, pass through the quaint island's narrow alleyways.

"Every year about 60,000 people, locals and foreign tourists, take part in the festival. We expect the same crowd this year," Eric Ho, the festival's organising committee vice-chairman, told AFP.

"It is very important for us to keep this tradition because it showcases our culture."

In the past, hundreds of young men raced up the structure to snatch the lucky buns, until more than 100 people were injured when the two bamboo towers collapsed in 1978, prompting a ban on the event.

It was revived in 2005 with bun towers made of steel, and limited to a small number of designated climbers. The steamed edible buns once used in the ritual have also been replaced with plastic replicas for hygiene reasons.

Blessing-seekers can still buy the real buns, usually made of lotus paste and stamped with the Chinese character for "peace", at shops on the island.

But the festival has been hit with a bun shortage this year after health officials warned local shops to stop stamping buns outside their premises, prompting merchants to cut back their supply in protest.

Some bun lovers were outraged. "I am disappointed I could not buy the buns - usually I will bring back some buns for my family as they symbolise peace and good health," said Christina Wong, a 57-year-old housewife queuing queue outside a bakery.

"If we don't allow this practice, we are going to lose part of the culture," she said.

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