Island living on Cheung Chau

Cheung Chau, Hong Kong SAR – March 2019

Early this year I was in Hong Kong with my parents for a few days and we wanted to get out of the city for a bit. My dad suggested we take a boat to Cheung Chau. It was about a 40 minute ride on the ferry leaving from one of the piers at Central, Hong Kong Island.

Cheung Chau is located 12km south-west of Hong Kong Island. The name means Long Island (so calling it Cheung Chau Island is a tautology), but it’s also known as dumbbell island, because well, it’s shaped like a dumbbell.

We were soon leaving Victoria Harbour behind us. The sea was a calm grey, reflecting the sky. It was an overcast day with low-hanging clouds partially shrouding some of the peaks on other islands spotted on the short voyage to Cheung Chau, like Lantau Island and Lamma Island.

Disembarking the ferry, the first thing you see on the island is a sign for McDonald’s. Walking up the path leading inland away from the waterfront, we encountered a fishball store in a large square.

Fishballs are very Cantonese and can be made of fish, squid, prawn, other seafood – I mean really, pretty much anything can be minced up and turned into a ball. Usually steamed, or boiled in stock, or deep-fried, sometimes served with curry sauce, they are a popular street food snack not just in Cheung Chau but everywhere in Hong Kong. The fishball shop in this large square is probably the best known one on the island.

A dumbbell! Kind of? Mmm, yummy.

We walked around the square and I took some photos of the colourful street murals.

Exiting the square, we kept going towards the other side of the island down a road which runs across the isthmus of the island (the narrowest bit of the “dumbbell”, as it were).

Just down a lane off this road, I came across this little shop called Hometown Teahouse which sold Japanese snacks. The menu basically consisted of different sushi hand-rolls and some sweet bun/cake things called obanyaki. I bought two cakes, one with red bean filling and one with vanilla custard filling. Both were pretty good.

Heading towards the beach on the eastern side, we spotted a bike locker turned into one of those love lock sites. As a mostly pedestrian island, bikes were plentiful, appearing to be the main mode of transport. A nearby shop was selling wooden hearts to decorate and affix to the bike locker.

A few minutes later we reached the beach (it was probably only 300 metres from the ferry pier on the western shore, to the beach on this side). There were a few people mucking about at the water’s edge. Several cute-looking dogs too.

(I think the land you can see on the horizon off in the distance is Lamma Island, but I could be wrong.)

There wasn’t that much to do at the beach as we had no intention of swimming. Shortly after, we headed back towards the streets and wandered for a bit.

Back on the western side of the island, there was a “seafood street” running along the coast. The street abutted the water on one side, a haphazard sort of harbour crammed with small boats. On the other side, servers stood outside restaurants touting their laminated menus of Cantonese-style seafood.

Honestly, they all looked the same as each other. Each of them made “the best” stir-fried pipis (little clams) with chilli, or “the best” crispy deep fried squid, or garlic prawns, etc.

I really wanted steamed fish, the Cantonese-style with ginger and spring onion and soy sauce, because it’s one of my favourite fish dishes. One of them caught hold of us (or more accurately, my mother) and we settled down to eat. The stir-fried pipis had excellent flavour but less appetisingly also some sand in them; they promptly whisked them away and gave us another dish instead.

Like lots of seafood restaurants, particularly in Asia, the seafood street establishments allow you to bring your own fish if you have purchased it from a nearby shop or fisherman. I think they then just charge you for cooking it. We did not BYO fish though.

After we’d had our fill, we kept walking down the street, past some shops displaying baskets of dried seafood. Eventually we came across another open sort of area, with a temple at the other end.

Yuk Hui Temple, also known as Pak Tai Temple, is the location of one of the things Cheung Chau is most famous for: the Cheung Chau Bun Festival.

The Cheung Chau Bun Festival apparently began as a fun ritual for fishing communities to pray for safety from pirates. In one origin story the island was devastated by a plague in the 18th century and infested with pirates. The local fishermen built an altar in front of the temple and petitioned the god Pak Tai to drive off the evil spirits besieging the island. They paraded statues of the deity through the narrow streets to drive away evil spirits. I’m not sure whether the pirates were possessed by these spirits or what, but in any case it must have worked as there didn’t seem to be any pirates around that I could see, or at least anyone who obviously resembled a pirate. Oh, and the plague ended too.

People also thought maybe the evil spirits were hungry, so they started making sesame-paste-filled “lucky buns”. Every year now, the islanders make papier-mâché effigies of deities, prepare costumes, bake buns and build a bamboo tower for the festival, which draws tens of thousands of local and overseas tourists every year. People who left the island for work return for the celebration, and it goes on for a week, with lion dances and drum beating. And of course, the Bun Scrambling Competition.

In front of the Pak Tai Temple, three giant bamboo towers are erected, covered with buns. These Bun Mountains (包山) originate from a custom of people snatching food offered to lonely spirits. Young men would race up the tower to snatch the buns and the higher the bun the better the fortune it would bring to your family.

Unfortunately during a bun-snatching race in 1978 one of the three Bun Mountains collapsed under the weight of over 200 climbers and injured over 100 people. The ritual was abandoned by government decree. In the 21st century, a local film about a cartoon pig bun-snatcher stirred up island nostalgia around the ritual and it was eventually reintroduced in 2005. Safety measures were put in place to prevent another disastrous Bun Mountain collapse: only 12 well-trained athletes selected from preliminary competitions were permitted to climb on one single Bun Mountain, which would be made of steel instead of the traditional bamboo.

Also, the buns were replaced with plastic ones. I guess they were going to waste.

Ensuring it wasn’t going away again any time soon, the Cheung Chau Bun Festival was inscribed onto China’s intangible cultural heritage list in 2011. Bun-snatching forever.

(If you search for the bun festival on YouTube, you can see some quite impressive displays of bun-snatching.)

There were no bun mountains the day we happened to be there, but we did spot massive life-size replicas in the Hong Kong Museum of History in Kowloon. Such is the importance of the festival to Hong Kong.

We finished off the day with dessert. Hong Kong loves dessert, and this island was no exception. I had a classic mango sago pomelo thing.

And then it was time to return to Hong Kong Island.

It was certainly a nice escape from the bustling crowds of Central or Kowloon, and if you’ve been to Hong Kong before and want to see a different, much more laid-back kind of island life, Cheung Chau is a nice option and only a short ferry ride away.

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