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 April 03, 2007
Cultural Festivals In Hong Kong In May

 As winter fades from our memories and spring arrives Hong Kong, residents and world travellers alike start to think "Festivals!" The month of May alone sees four key celebrations in Hong Kong: the Birthday of Tin Hau (9 May), the Cheung Chau Bun Festival (21 -- 26 May), the birthday of Lord Buddha (24 May) and the Tam Kung Festival (also 24 May). And when these are over, there's still the Dragon Boat Festival on 19 June to look forward to.

Tin Hau , known as the Queen of Heaven and Goddess of the Sea, was born, according to legend, in Fujian Province in 906 AD. She was able to forecast the weather and save seafarers from shipwrecks and thus became the patron of fisherfolk and seafarers. Thus it is that on her birthday each year celebrants pray for safety, security, calm weather and fine catches during the coming year.

The colourful festival consists of dragon, unicorn and lion dances; marching bands with drums and gongs; and elaborate fa pau (paper floral shrines), which fishers believe bring good luck and protection. There are over 70 Tin Hau Temples scattered around Hong Kong, some located in what have now become urban areas, others in more remote fishing villages. The oldest temple, dating from 1266, is at Joss House Bay, located in the eastern New Territories on Sai Kung Peninsula. Not only is it the oldest temple, it is also the largest and therefore not surprisingly it is known as the "Big Temple". It is home to some Qing Dynasty treasures, including an iron incense burner, a ceremonial pot and bell and two dragon boats. It is there that some of the biggest Tin Hau celebrations take place, including a parade of sailing boats decked out with colourful flags.

This Tin Hau Festival location is just one of many that will take place on this special day. There will be processions, dances and music at a variety of other Tin Hau Temple sites and -- at Yung Shue Wan on Lamma Island -- dragon boat and sampan races will be added to the dancing and operatic events.

The Cheung Chau Bun Festival, always staged on Cheung Chau Island, just an hour's ferry ride from the city centre, is one of Hong Kong's most eagerly anticipated events by people of all ages. This island was once notorious as a pirates' lair and islanders have two origins to explain their unusual celebration: to placate the ghosts of pirates' victims and/or to commemorate being saved from a plague 200 years ago. The colorful six-day celebration is a special favourite with photographers, especially when the days of the festival culminate with spectacular processions. These are led by Taoist priests and consist of shrines, acrobats, music, lion dances and -- the most beloved - children dressed as mythological figures and Chinese heroes, who are held aloft on an intricate system of rods and hidden wires and thus float over the heads of the crowd. The parade has a spectacular ending: three huge bun towers will have been erected in front of the century-old Pak Tai Temple to appease hungry ghosts. In an event revived only in 2005, at a given signal athletes clamber up on one of the towers to collect the "lucky" buns, with the participant who collects the most within the specified time declared the winner.

This year, the eighth day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar falls on 24 May. That day is the one on which the birthday of Lord Buddha is commemorated although, in fact, the celebrations are spread over eight days, commencing on 17 May. Although there are Buddhist temples throughout Hong Kong, the Po Lin Monastery on Hong Kong's largest outlying island -- Lantau -- is the focal point of these ceremonies. It is there, atop the island's mountain plateau, that the Giant Buddha -- the world's tallest outdoor seated bronze statue -- towers majestically. On his birthday visitors can join locals in the ritual of bathing the Buddha statue, as well as witness some heart-stopping Kung Fu performances by young Shaolin monks and a variety of other shows featuring acrobatics and Chinese music.

While on Lantau Island visitors can enjoy many other excursions. Hiking is a popular pastime here. There are endless trails to explore in beautiful country parks that offer incomparable views of the Lantau itself as well as the surrounding islands set in shimmering seas. For a shorter walk, the Wisdom Path is a 15-minute stroll from Po Lin Monastery to an outdoor replica of the centuries-old Heart Sutra Buddhist prayer. This prayer is engraved on a series of wooden columns arranged in the form of an infinity figure to symbolize splendour and the concept of nothingness. Also not far from the monastery is the quaint fishing village of Tai O, famous for its traditional houses on stilts that are inhabited mostly by the Tanka people, descendants of Hong Kong's first settlers. And when hunger pangs are felt, Lantau Island visitors love to head to Cheung Sha where, overlooking one of Hong Kong's finest beaches, a wide range of al fresco dining experiences can be enjoyed.

The Tam Kung Festival is another much-looked-forward-to celebration. Tam Kung is another patron of fishers and boat people and so it is fitting that the main celebration of this birthday is held in Shau Kei Wan, a former fishing villages at the eastern end of Hong Kong Island. The current Tam Kung Temple was reconstructed in 2002, preserving the design of the original which was built in 1905. Local fisherfolk who worship Tam Kung have placed a small-scale wooden junk and a dragon in the temple. The celebration itself consists of a procession with lion and dragon dances, children on floats and a variety of cultural performances.

A 10-minute walk from this Temple, and well worth a visit, is the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence, a fascinating gallery that offers insight into how Hong Kong has defended itself through the ages, all set within a converted 19th century fort. There's also a Tin Hau Temple just a short walk from Tam Kung Temple along Shau Kei Wan Main Street East. Here in this temple are 100-year-old murals, woodcarvings, wall paintings, Shek Wan pottery and, in front of the image of Tin Hau, two exquisite figurines which, according to legend, have supernatural eyesight and hearing.

The excitement of festivals does not come to an end when May is over, for 19 June is the next big date. That's the day of the fabulous Dragon Boat Festival, when dragon boats, with their ornately carved dragon heads and tails, plunge through the water, propelled by their athletic teams to the sound of pounding drums and roaring crowds. This festival celebrates the brave action of poet and philosopher Qu Yuan who, when China was under political and military strife, protested against the corrupt regime by jumping into the Mei Lo River. According to legend, local fishermen, upon seeing their beloved poet's act of courage, raced out with their boats in an attempt to save him. To their dismay, they arrived too late. To prevent his body from being eaten by fish, they beat the waters furiously with their paddles and threw rice dumplings wrapped in silk into the river to distract them. Today, thousands of years later, the Dragon Boat races still celebrate this act of courage.