Pirates, temples and a fairly fun bun festival
12km south west of Hong Kong island and at only 2.5km in length, Cheung Chau is relatively small when compared to its more amply proportioned neighbours, but this has by no means left it floating in obscurity. The island has seen human settlement for longer than most other parts of the territory and has a potted history that includes pirates, illegal immigrants and more recently, a spate of holiday home suicides that earned it the family-friendly moniker Death Island. Not exactly a tag the Hong Kong tourist board will be killing themselves to promote.
When deciding what to do on Cheung Chau, you will soon realise you have a surprisingly long list of activities to choose from. The island is ideal for ambling along the waterfront, wandering the back streets or sitting outside a café on the square watching island life go by. There are temples and beaches, hills to climb and trail walks, ancient carvings and of course, the Cheung Chau bun festival. As such, it would pay to take a trip to the island at the same leisurely pace as the locals – especially on busy summer weekends – allowing time to take in the sights and soak up the laid back feel of the place, leaving the rest for a deserved return trip.
What to do on Cheung Chau
Visit the Temples
A Grade I historical building, Pak Tai Temple was built in 1783 and dedicated to its eponymous deity by the earliest settlers of Cheung Chau. They prayed to Pak Tai, a Taoist god of the sea, in order to ensure their safe passage on their journey from Guangdong. He was also invoked to banish plague from the island in 1777 and has been keeping its fishermen safe and evil at bay ever since. The temple is the oldest and most important on the island and is the site of the Cheung Chau bun festival every spring. There are also several smaller Tin Hau temples on the island to explore.
See the Pirate Cave
Cheung Po Tsai Cave on the western tip of the island is said to be the place where the 19th century pirate Cheung Po Tsai stashed – and no doubt shook – his pirate booty. There’s nothing Aladdin about this one. Though it is more substantial than it looks. With a torch in hand it is possible to climb down into the cave and walk through its narrow passageway and out the other side some twenty or so metres along. There was even an enterprising chap renting torches for $6 (+ $10 deposit) near to the entrance if you happened to come without.
It is debatable whether the source of the cave’s notoriety can be trusted. Cheung Po Tsai was certainly a historical figure, carrying out his dastardly trade along the Guangdong coast during the Qing Dynasty. Whether he actually used the cave during his career, however, cannot be known for sure.
At the height of his piracy he was said to have commanded a fleet of 600 ships and, according to some estimates, up to 50,000 men. He was eventually forced to surrender to the Chinese government in 1810 but was made a captain in the imperial navy and spent the rest of his life in the comfort afforded him by his rank and position. You can find the cave on the southwestern tip of the island. Follow the waterfront path to Sai Wan village and then follow the signs.
With souvenir stalls, restaurants, and laid-back local bars and cafes, Cheung Chau’s harbor front makes for perfect strolling. Park yourself in front of a harbor-front drink or two and take in the easy atmosphere of island life whilst watching the sun set over the water and behind the mountains of Lantau. A perfect way to end your day.
Wander the Back Streets
Away from the harbour and the main square, Cheung Chau becomes a warren of narrow residential streets interspersed with shops and food stalls. Hectic Hong Kong is only a forty minute ferry ride away, but here it seems it never existed. Residents potter about bringing shopping back from the market. Kids play as bikes ease past with barely enough room to maneuver. The quiet and the close-packed three-story buildings, with balconies cluttered with pot plants and washing hanging down, give the place a very neighbourly, chilled out feel to life here. Get your roam on while you can.
There are two main beaches on Cheung Chau. Of the two beaches on the east of the island, Tung Wan is the largest and most popular. A short walk across from the ferry pier, it offers the usual facilities of those maintained by Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department, namely showers, changing rooms and lifeguard services, with generally good water quality. Though as befits the largest beach on the island, it can get especially crowded on summer weekends and holidays.
Right next door, however, is the slightly smaller and slightly less busy Kwun Yam Wan. There is a refreshment hut where it is also possible to rent kayaks here, but generally the facilities are less substantial than its neighbour.
Smaller still is Po Ye Wan, also known as the “Italian Beach”, located in the southwest corner of the island close to the Cheung Po Tsai cave. It is much quieter than the main two beaches, though lacks their facilities. There are also beaches in the north of the island if you really want to get away from the crowd.
Walk the Trails
Scenic and easy. That pretty much sums up Cheung Chau hiking. Though maybe we should add pleasantly varied to that list too. Coastal paths, hills and woods are all featured.
There is a well signposted family walk which will take you around three hours to complete, while other trails give great views of the island itself and of Lantau, Lamma and Hong Kong across the water. You will find secluded beaches, hidden temples, viewing pavilions and funky rock formations whichever way you choose to walk.
The south of Cheung Chau probably has the pick of the things to see, including ancient rock carvings to the east and Cheung Po Tsai Cave to the west.
Eat the Seafood
Cheung Chau is famous in Hong Kong for its excellent seafood. Along the waterfront and in the side streets off it there are many restaurants offering all manner of freshly caught local sea-fare brought in by the armada of fishing vessels that can be seen in the harbour. If you’re feeling especially gourmet, it’s even possible to buy your own ingredients at the nearby wet market and take it to the restaurant for cooking later. Either way, Cheung Chau eating isn’t to be missed.
There are no motorised vehicles on Cheung Chau save for the miniature emergency vehicles that can occasionally be seen, thus bicycles are a constant on the island’s streets for locals and visitors alike. Think gentle tootle rather than extreme downhill. There are no plummeting descents to be conquered or purpose-built trails. But if you want a leisurely alternative to walking when doing your exploring, cycling is an ideal way to get you from one side of the island to the other. For those fancying a spot of two-wheeled exploration, bikes can be hired near the Cheung Chau ferry pier.
Watch the Bun Festival
Taking place to mark the eighth day of the Fourth Moon of the Chinese calendar, usually in early May, the Cheung Chau Bun Festival coincides with the Hong Kong celebration of Buddha’s Birthday and sees thousands of tourists and locals descend on the island to watch grown men scrambling up 60ft high bamboo towers covered in buns.
The bun festival was originally intended to keep the community safe from pirates and other nefarious spirits by parading images of various deities around the village. Now a similar procession, together with lion and dragon dances and an orgy of gong and drum beating, parades the town keeping evil at bay and everyone thoroughly entertained.
As can be seen from the photographs, buns straight from steaming are stamped in the traditional way and subsequently attached to the tower to be climbed and then snatched. The higher the bun, the better fortune for the snatcher and his family. Ga yau!
How to Get There
To reach the island, take the Cheung Chau ferry from Pier 5 in Central. The journey takes between 35 and 55 minutes depending on whether you take the ordinary or fast ferry. Ferries are frequent during the day (approx every 30 mins) and run, in some form, throughout the night as well.
Check out the Cheung Chau ferry timetable at the official website.