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Uniquely HK

History Matters

Cheung Chau

Junks and sampans in the bay. Courtesy of Richard Garrett.

 

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region includes many islands. Most are sparsely populated but Cheung Chau, whilst small has a thriving community and maintains many of the old traditions.

Cheung Chau, or ‘long island’, is one of the easiest outlying islands to visit on a relaxing ferry ride from Central. Only two kilometres long, the island is dumbbell-shaped with hills at each end and flat land in the middle with low rise residential buildings, old shop houses and beaches. No cars are allowed since the ancient cobbled alleyways are too narrow, though there are plenty of bicycles for hire.

 

Main street. Courtesy of Richard Garrett.

 

The island has been a major fishing port for centuries and the junks anchored in the bay go long distances for fish. In the past most of the population, Tanka fisher folk, said to be descendants of ancient sea-going gypsies, were engaged in drying salt-fish and making shrimp paste with its pungent aroma. Today they are joined at weekends by thousands of visitors from the urban areas to enjoy Cheung Chau’s many temples, cafes and beaches.

Tung Wan, the main beach, is popular for swimming, canoeing and windsurfing. In fact Cheung Chau was the birthplace of Lee Lai Shan, a windsurfer who won the first Olympic gold medal for Hong Kong in 1996. At the far end of the beach, just below the Warwick Hotel, is an ancient rock carving discovered by a geologist in 1970. The 3,500-year-old Bronze Age carvings of geometric patterns and stylized animal images are similar to those found on pottery and bronzes of the period.

At the south-western end of the island at Sai Wan is a cave; reportedly that of notorious local pirate Cheung Po-tsai. He is believed to have hideouts in many other places around Hong Kong, including Stanley and Tung Chung. Born in Xinhui in Guangdong Province in 1786, the son of a fisherman, he was kidnapped at the age of fifteen by a pirate king, and lived the life of an outlaw from then on. After the pirate king drowned, his wife assumed command of the fleet and fell in love with Cheung Po-tsai who rapidly rose to power. Foreign merchant ships had to pay him protection money, and his fleet numbered over 270 ships with 15,000 men at his command. In 1810 he was finally overwhelmed by the Qing navy. Following his surrender, he was offered an officer’s post in the Qing navy and later promoted to Major General. He died in 1822.

 

Pak Tai temple. Courtesy of Richard Garrett.

 

There are several temples on Cheung Chau, including three dedicated to Tin Hau, the Goddess of the Sea. The fisher folk come to worship her especially during the annual Tin Hau Festival in the third lunar month. Another famous temple, a short distance from the ferry pier, along the waterfront, is dedicated to the Daoist deity and god of the north, Pak Tai. This is one of the oldest temples in Hong Kong, built in 1783. It has a traditional layout with colourful Shek Wan pottery figurines on the roof ridges, murals containing auspicious motifs and stone lions in the forecourt.

Every year, in May, thousands of spectators flock to Cheung Chau to enjoy the Bun Festival held in honour of Pak Tai. The festival is organised to pacify the spirits of the islanders who died of a plague in 1894, and to commemorate the day the outbreak was finally wiped out, after Pak Tai’s image had been paraded through the streets of the island. The festival’s main attraction is the parade in the afternoon of the last day of ‘floating children’, who are carried shoulder high, seemingly suspended in mid air with little apparent support. Each child represents a figure in history, or a political or topical theme, and is carefully made up and dressed for the part. The parade winds its way through the narrow streets and includes lion dances, martial arts performances, and at the front of the procession, red sedan chairs carrying deities from all the temples on Cheung Chau, with, of course, Pak Tai leading the way.

Bun towers. Courtesy of Richard Garrett.

Opposite the temple next to the matshed where the opera takes place, are three huge conical towers built of bamboo, about fifteen metres tall, each one completely covered with layers of white buns, which are believed to have the power to cure all ills. The buns are stamped in red with the Chinese character for peace.

At midnight to mark the end of the festivities, islanders climb up the towers to snatch as many buns as they could. After the collapse of a tower in 1978 injuring 100 revellers, the climb was banned but it was reinstated a few years later using a single steel tower and the number of climbers is limited. The following day, after the gods have eaten their fill of the spiritual essence of the buns, they are removed and handed out to the islanders.

Stamping buns. Courtesy of Richard Garrett.

Richard Garrett has lived in Hong Kong for more than forty years and is the author of numerous articles on people and places in Hong Kong, Macau and China. See www.richardjgarrett.com

 

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