Women and their plastic buns on Cheung Chau

Women and their plastic buns on Cheung Chau

We watch the qualifying heats for women in the Cheung Chau bun tower climbing competition and meet some mighty athletic women gone bun-crazy

Cheung Chau bun festival
This year's Cheung Chau bun festival has a record number of female entrants all eager to be the first to the top of the bun towers. The dash up a 15 meter tall tower covered in lucky Chinese buns is a century-old folk custom for the former pirate enclave of Cheung Chau. Traditionally, residents would scramble all over the towers, snatching as many buns as they could along the way, racing to get to the top where the luckiest buns are located. 

After a tower collapsed in 1978, the bun tower scramble was banned. The custom only resumed in 2005 with modifications. The modern version of the bun tower scramble uses steel towers, plastic buns, professional climbing gear, and hard rules. Only 12 qualifying climbers can participate in the finals and they are limited to three minutes on the tower. The buns they snatch off the tower earn them different points -- the higher up the bun, the more points it is worth. 

Modernizing has increased the competitive element of the bun tower scramble and attracted athletes who contest for boasting rights. Although some lament turning a folk custom into a mere sport, the event will attract an estimated 45-50,000 visitors to Cheung Chau Island. Many are eager to see the crowning of the first Cheung Chau bun festival queen, as this is the first time men and women will compete in separate categories. 

We visited Cheung Chau on May 15 to witness the qualifying race for women and meet the bun-crazy ladies.

Cheung Chau bun festival

No buns were used for the qualifying heats. Competitors had to race to the top of a steel tower covered in bamboo poles and the top 12 would qualify for the finals. Plastic lucky buns will cover the entire bamboo structure for the final event, and competitors must grab as many of them as they can within three minutes. Buns located at the top of the tower are worth nine points, while the ones near the bottom are only worth one.

Cheung Chau bun festival

A total of 145 people applied for the qualifying races, out of which 34 were female. At the end of the day, the fastest male time was just 7.75 seconds and the fastest female time was 12.8 seconds.

Cheung Chau bun festival

The Cheung Chau bun festival attracts women who may have never climbed before. Lam Chung Ting (right) has no experience with climbing, but entered the competition after friends encouraged her. Now she's hooked. "I’ve gained confidence and I’m determined to do even better next year," Lam said

Tsang Woon Ming (left) is a champion long distance runner who has never climbed prior to the training session a week earlier. "I joined the bun scrambling competition because I wanted to be a part of a proud Hong Kong cultural event," Tsang said. She was very happy with her first climb and will participate again next year.

Cheung Chau bun festival
Professional climbers also love the challenge of the Cheung Chau bun festival, such as Lisa Cheng, aka "Spidergirl." As the date of the bun scramble conflicts with a bodybuilding competition, the nimble Spidergirl won't be competing this year, instead making way for the next generation of bun snatchers. 

Yuen Wing Sze (left) is an experienced rock climber, just 18 years old. Yuen wanted to compete for many years but had to wait until this year to meet the age requirement. She was the youngest to qualify as a finalist for the competition and claims "rock climbing is much more difficult than this, you have to use your brain in rock climbing but this race is all about speed."

Edid Li (right) is another 18 year-old in the contest. Li is a runner and has no experience of climbing. Although she didn't qualify, she will return in the years to come to gauge her progress. "I wanted to challenge myself, but I didn’t tell any of my friends I entered in case I didn’t do well."

Cheung Chau bun festival
The eldest finalist, Lam So Mui, wanted to show her children she could still compete with younger people. She signed up with no expectations as it was her first time competing but finished with the second fastest qualifying time among the female climbers.


Cheung Chau bun festival
Wong Ka Yan is a seasoned rock climber and a return competitor at the annual Cheung Chau bun festival. Last year she was second fastest. This year, she earned the fastest qualifying time amongst the female entrants and she has her sights set for the top spot.

Cheung Chau bun festival
The 12 finalists are comprised of nine men and three women.

Although crowds are expected to reach 50,000 at the Cheung Chau bun festival, only 1,500 spectators will be allowed for the bun tower scramble final competition. Spectator tickets for finals will be distributed at the Cheung Chau Fire Station starting at 10pm on the day.

Cheung Chau Bun Festival 

The bun carnival finale will be held May 21, 11.30pm - 12.30am, at Cheung Chau's Pak Tai Temple playground.

The bun festival parade will be from 2-4pm on the same day. See the parade route map.

See the full schedule of events for the carnival at www.discoverhongkong.com.

There will be an additional ferry departing Cheung Chau for Central at 1.15am on May 22. See other public transportation special arrangements at news.gov.hk.

Derrick Chang is a Canadian photojournalist based in Hong Kong. His work has appeared in Time, the New York Times, CNNGo, Huffington Post, and other Asian media outlets. He enjoys hiking from one mountain village to another, waiting for the golden light and dining on street food.

Read more about Derrick Chang

After traveling around the world on a fistful of dollars, Zoe returns to Hong Kong, where she grew up, to discover and write about all the inspiring stuff that happens here on a daily basis.

Read more about Zoe Li