Beloved Hong Kong bun festival returns after three years
Clanging gongs, dragon dances and costumed children paraded on poles Friday heralded the return of the Bun Festival to Hong Kong's island of Cheung Chau after three years of a pandemic-induced hiatus.
Thousands flocked to the island, only accessible by ferry, where the "Piu Sik" parade kicked off the festival's penultimate day -- when all the main events are held.
The celebrations will culminate with climbers scrambling up a 14-metre-high (45-feet-high) bamboo tower covered with imitation steamed buns.
"On days like this, Cheung Chau feels like the centre of the world," island resident Mabel Leung told AFP.
"We had tough years... (but) I never doubted that people would come back," the 58-year-old said.
One of Hong Kong's most popular cultural traditions, the five-day festival dates back to the 1800s when, according to legend, Cheung Chau's fisherfolk drove away pirates and the plague by parading a statue of Taoist sea deity Pak Tai.
The pause in festivities during the pandemic was the first such disruption in over a century.
Despite temperatures reaching a blazing 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), crowds gathered along Cheung Chau's winding alleys on Friday to cheer on the children serving as unofficial mascots in the parade.
The procession once paraded statues of deities, but they were replaced decades ago by kids in costumes, sometimes dressed in satirical themes, hoisted onto towering metal poles.
The parade's political edge was dulled this year, as Beijing tightens its grip on the city's freedoms after imposing a national security law in 2020 to quell dissent.
"It's not good to be too satirical," festival committee chair Yung Chi-ming told reporters.
Still, there were some attempted jabs, such as the bespectacled, stern-looking boy dressed as Hong Kong's finance chief Paul Chan -- which organisers joked was a dig at the city's rising living costs.
Shops such as the popular Kwok Kam Kee bakery saw long queues of festivalgoers eager to sample the island's favourite sweet buns.
Filled with sesame, lotus seed or bean paste, the plump buns are stamped with the Chinese character for "peace and safety" in crimson.
At the stroke of midnight, 12 climbers who have advanced through qualifying contests in previous weeks will speed-climb up the bun tower for a grab at glory.
Five-time "Bun Queen" title holder Angel Wong told AFP she was gunning for the trophy again.
"I'm actually very happy and very excited. We haven't had such a large-scale event in a long time," Wong said.
"It's kind of like a gala, getting to meet all these people and compete in this competition again."