If you haven’t seen its quirky festivals, you haven’t seen Hong Kong at all!
There are cities in the world. And then there is Hong Kong. The only one. Yeah, there’s no city in the world like this one. You don’t believe me? Fine- name one in which you can come out off an all glassy mall selling the top most branded stuff and climb a hill- right away. Yeah. That’s Hong Kong.
Which other city in the world can you find an all new, just out of the showroom Mercedes waiting for a tram, locally called Ding Ding, pass by. Yeah, that too not as a ‘tourist trap’ but an actually functioning public transport system used by thousands of the locals like me for their daily commute.
And while we are at this- which other city have you seen using every possible mode of transport, of course barring bullock carts? We have ferries linking not merely outlying islands to the city but even parts of the city- like Star Ferry linking Hong Kong Island to Kowloon operating since 1873 in various forms and still using one built in 1956! Quirky fact here: The company was founded by an Indian Parsee merchant Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala as the “Kowloon Ferry Company” in 1888- that 126 years before you know who became Prime Minister of where. We have tramways established in 1920s and still operatioal. And Samapans aka local, Chinese boats, and Metro Rail network, and buses, and mini buses and light rail and name it- we have it.
We are city which has the sea and the hills, and a jungle of concrete and glass and many real ones, falls 100 an dmore meters high and rivers mere 4 kms long. Of course we draw a lot of tourists because of this. And they come here with eyes dazzled with all the glitter and the organised chaos in its flea markets- Ladies Market in Mong Kok and Temple Street Market in Yau Ma Tei taking the cake.
They look at their travel guides and do the stuff- Must Visit in Hong Kong, 1 day in Hong Kong, 3 days in Hong Kong and all that! They religiously visit the Victoria Harbour- the identity of the city, its establishing shot as they call it in cinema studies, and the Victoria Peak which gives a magnificent view of the city of light (pollution) that gets instantly Instagrammed and Facebooked. Some of them do manage more of a real taste of the town and go to Tai O, the stilted village of our own, to Lamma Island and Cheung Chau where no motorized vehicles are allowed barring small ambulances and other necessary- government owned ones. Yeah, there are places in Hong Kong where no cars are allowed!
They do go to the overrated Disneyland, the real gem of a theme park named Ocean Park with rides turning you upseide down over the sea- scaring the crap out of you and to real big, 250 tons Big Buddha aka Tian Tan Buddha- mostly to find it hazy and misty- damn you Hong Kong weather! But then, most of then don’t really get the real feel of this city!
The feel that lives in its festivals! Hundreds and hundreds years old festivals still being celebrated with the same zeal and same way- sans of course the police, the medics and the tourists! They give you the real feel of the city- continually inhabited by homo sapiens since pre historic time but not much more than a fishing village till even 400 years ago and its transformation into the megapolis it became.
Watching these festivals can in fact stun you into an amazed silence! That high flying banker you always see in sapper business suits doing a lion dance dressed as a lion right to the head gear! That beautiful doctor you go to as much for flirting as for medicine playing the drum like a boss leading the real tall dragon that needs hundred and at times even more people to carry it!
My absolute favourites is the Fire Dragon Dance in Pok Fu Lam village that coincides with the Mid Autumn festival usually in Oct! Best part about this almost absolutely non touristy festival is the super long dragon taken to each and every house in the village to bless them maneuvering the real narrow lanes and by lanes. Added advantage: You could be the only “non Chinese” attending the same and thus given a pride of the place, like I was, with locals wanting to tell you all about it- that it is celebrated to thank the Gods who helped villagers fight a particularly nasty Plague that ravaged it centuries ago. Second best thing about this one is that unlike the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance- which is way too touristy, you don’t have to see it from afar- other side of the barricades. You can actually touch, put incense into the dragon and can even carry it if you are daring enough to face both hot ash and bends in the narrow lanes unknown to you!
Close second on the list is the Cheng Chau Bun Festival, or Cheung Chau Da Jiu Festival- a Taoist Festival marking a Taoist sacrificial ritual held on 8th day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar, usually in May or June. It disbelieved to be celebrated, again, after the Gods responded to the villagers pleas for ending a plague and protecting them from pirates. The wishes are believed to have been granted once the villagers brought an image of the god Pak Tai to the island. Even since, they parade the deities through the village lanes to chase out evil spirits. Funniest part of the more of a carnival than festival comes at the fag end- with the famous Bun Tower climbing competition- where men and women climb atop real high bun tower to snatch the buns symbolising good luck for the new year. Note that this a mere One Village Festival- yeah, it is that unique!
Then there, of course, is the Dragon Boat Festival, a very typical Chinese festival held on the 5th day of the 5th Lunar month (normally in May or June) that has gone truly international with dozens of international teams participating! The festival- believed to be celebrated in memory of he story best known in modern China holds that the festival commemorates the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BC) of the ancient state of Chu during the Warring States period of the Zhou Dynasty. Qu was upset over the king aliging with a rival state of Qin, as he suspected its intentions and was exiled for his opposition. His fears came true however, and Qin captured Ying, the Chu capital. Deeply sad Qu Yuan committed suicide by jumping into the Miluo River. It is believed that local people who greatly respected him raced out their boats to save him but could not. From there comes the Dragon Boat Race! Failing to find even his body, they dropped balls of sticky rice into the river so that the fish would eat them instead of Qu. From there comes zongzill the rice wrapped in bamboo, reeds and many other forms of leaves that is now famous across South East Asia!
Yet, Dragon Boat Festival was a very local festival until 1976 when Hong Kong first organised an ‘international’ dragon boat race with just one foreign team from Nagasaki, Japan, off Shau Kei Wan. Who would have known that the race would grow this big and become such an international event with over 200 national and international teams participating! So next time you plan a visit try looking around for dates which may accommodate joining one such festival at least! As it is if you haven’t seen any of the Hong Kong’s quirky festivals then you haven’t seen HK at all!