Only a 35- to 55-minute ferry ride from Central Hong Kong, the picturesque Cheung Chau Island is still a quaint fishing village and preserves many traditional customs.
For tourists, the traditional Cheung Chau Bun Festival on the eighth day of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar, or late May, is not to be missed.
The dumbbell-shaped island is basically free of motor traffic, and inhabitants usually ride their own bikes or simply walk. Only half a square kilometer in size, the island is small enough to be fully covered in a day. For visitors, take the “Wala Wala” (small boat) to visit different bays.
Benefiting from the natural coastal bays, athlete Lee Lai-shan, born and raised on the island, became Hong Kong’s first Olympic gold medalist in windsurfing in 1996.
All sorts of restaurants, from seafood cuisine to Western pubs and cafes, are open along the waterfront until midnight.
During the week, Cheung Chau is a quiet residential island, but weekends are a different story. When ferries, packed with sightseers and holidaymakers, arrive at the island, the population doubles.
Praya Street and Pak Tai Temple （北帝庙）
“Praya” is Portuguese for “square.” If you turn left out of the square and walk a few short blocks from the pier, you come to a little playground, behind which is Pak Tai Temple.
Pak Tai, which literally translates as the Northern King, is regarded as Cheung Chau’s patron saint by local residents. Legends tell of ways he has helped islanders in times of crisis, especially when plague struck in the 18th century.
Built in 1783, the oldest temple on the island, Pak Tai is just 10 minutes’ walk from the pier. Some historically important antiques are still kept in the temple to reflect its status as the religious center of Cheung Chau. The internationally famous Bun Festival is held in front of the temple every year.
From Pak Tai Temple, walk along Pak She Street and San Hing Street.
Pak She Street and San Hing Street
Pak She Street and San Hing Street form Cheung Chau’s old main streets. The scene is typical of island communities: three-story balconied shop-houses flank a narrow pedestrian lane that follows the contour of the original coastline before the land was reclaimed.
Stroll along these streets past old buildings with modern shops where islanders practice their traditional trades, bake lotus-seed cakes, dispense herbal medicine or manufacture and sell Cheung Chau’s famed, pungent, purplish-brown shrimp paste. In clan and community associations, memorial plaques and photographs line the walls.
Tung Wan Beach （东湾）
Cheung Chau’s “town” crowds the narrow sandbar linking the two hilly ends of the island. On the eastern side, only a few minutes’ walk across the island from the ferry pier is Tung Wan, a popular public beach.
In high summer, the beach can be pretty packed. Windsurfing is also popular at this time.
In waters off to the right, beyond the Warwick Hotel, Cheung Chau, Hong Kong’s first Olympic gold medallist, Lee Lai-shan, used to practice windsurfing as a schoolgirl. The local Windsurfing Center teaches the sport.
Reclining Rock （五行石）
After years of erosion, peculiar-shaped rocks have formed along the coastline of Cheung Chau, giving the island a spectacular sight. The Reclining Rock can be found at the west end of the island. It is a complex of five rocks, each five meters in height. It is said standing in the the passage in the middle gives you a spiritual experience.
Cheung Po Tsai Cave （张保仔洞）
At the far western tip of the island is Cheung Po Tsai Cave. It’s named after Cheung Chau’s most infamous pirate, who used the cave as a hideout in the early part of the 19th century. Legend aside, the cave is nothing special. Visitors enter from the top, climbing down inside. Once inside, the paths are dark and narrow, with only a ray of light beaming down from the top. Remember to bring a flashlight.
In the 18th century, Cheung Chau was devastated by plague and infiltrated by pirates until local fishermen brought an image of the Taoist god Pak Tai to the island. Paraded through the village lanes, the deity drove away the evil spirits. Every year on the eighth day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar, the islanders organize a weeklong thanksgiving, the Bun Festival.
The centerpiece of the festival are the giant bamboo towers filled with edible buns in the courtyard of Pak Tai Temple, while the climax of the bun snatching takes place every midnight through the weeklong festival. When midnight strikes, hundreds of young men rush up to the three bun towers, tear off the buns, put them in bags or share them among the crowd. The participants are so quick that thousands of buns are plucked from the bamboo frames in a matter of minutes. The buns are then sold or distributed to anyone who did not join in the competition. This ritual was abandoned in 1978 for safety reasons, but was resumed in 2005.
Another exotic feature of the festival is the “floating colors.” Colorfully clad children are hoisted up on stilts and paraded through the crowds. Other events, including Chinese opera, lion dances and religious services, attract both locals and visitors.
The tiny shops and celebrated seafood restaurants highlight the commercial attributes of the island. As evening approaches, the restaurants along the streets and waterfront make ready for their main business. Given islanders’ predominantly conservative tastes, most are straightforward, Cantonese style. Seafood dominates menus — fish from tropical reefs, lobsters, prawns and shellfish can be bought from aquariums at or near the restaurants.
(Shenzhen Daily June 26, 2007)