Most crossings on this ferry will take you from the center of Hong Kong to Kowloon, but this particular passage is to another world, another time.
We leave behind Hong Kong’s shimmering towers for an island in the South China Sea that has remained faithful to a centuries-old tradition on every 8th day of the 4th month of the lunar calendar.
12 of the best climbers in Asia are here to conquer a 5 story tower of 9,000 buns.
In Hawaii, we may know these as manapua. But in Chinese they are called bao. It’s a kind of treasure and the goal is to snatch as many as you can hold.
“The tower has a metal skeleton, so the climbers have something to grab on the way up,” explains Jeff Lam of the Chinese Lion Dance Association. ”In the past it was wired to chicken wire, so when people were grabbing buns, they’d be losing fingers. On the way down they use a rigging pulley. They control their own descent, so it’s pretty safe.”
Even so, in 1978 an entire tower fell, injuring a hundred athletes and spectators. So safety is never taken for granted.
Believe it or not this, competition is a religious observance honoring the Toaist gods of Cheung Chau.
It also falls on the birthday of Buddha.
So over the years the festival has evolved into a tribute to all deities past and present, a time to reaffirm our responsibility as mortal beings to respect the earth, spirits and each other, as the venerable Hui Chan explains.
“This temple was built on 4 principles: Regard emptiness as existence, regard retreat as advancing, regard all people as yourself, nothingness as happiness. How can people be happy when we have nothing? We have troubles, but if we let go of desires we find compassion and find peace,” says Chan.
All eyes are on firefighter and depending champ Kwok Ka-Ming, number 7, and his rival Tam Kin-Hung, number 9.
“The higher you get, the marks get higher,” explains participant Chun Wah Hong. “The participants try to get as many as they can.”
The climbers have just 3 minutes to bag their buns. Kwok flies past the 1 and 3 pointers and goes for the gold.
Tam Kin-Hung gets tangled in the ropes and must ascend briefly to give his tether some slack.
But the effort is hopeless.
The bun count yields no surprises. Defending champion Kwok Ka-Ming does it again with a record 1,044 points. This is his 9th championship in 13 years.
Hours later, the harbor and streets are quiet, free of revelers, the towers bare, the buns lying
In mounds. This is when the true celebration of heritage begins, and it is only for Cheung Chau residents.
The festival, though famous for its buns and towers and climbers, is at its heart about sharing and strengthening that thread that connects one generation to the next.
“Something good to keep for generations,” says Daniel Kwok of Cheung Chau, “So we remember where we from, who we are and what we do.”