Situated on the island of Cheung Chau (長洲島), a short ferry ride away from Central Hong-Kong, the Pak Tai Temple (北帝廟) is famous for its Bun Festival (包節) which is held every year on the 5th and 9th day of the 4th lunar month (usualy in April or early May).
Also called the Palace of Jade Void (玉虛宮), Cheung Chau’s Pak Tai Temple is Grade I Historic Building in Hong Kong, and a less touristy alternative to other famous religious sites of the former British colony, like the overcrowded Big Buddha near Lantau Island’s Po Lin Monastery (built in 1993), the Wong Tai Sin Temple (黃大仙祠) in Kowloon or the Man Mo Temple (文武廟) near Hollywood Road on Hong-Kong Island.
Off-the-radar to most visitors in Hong Kong, the Pak Tai Temple is cultural gem well-worth a ferry ride away from the crowds.
Guardian of Evil Spirits and Master of Dark Heavens
In 1777, as Cheung Chau and nearby islands were hit by the plague, a fisherman from Huizhou (most of the early settlers from Cheung Chau originated in Guangdong province’s cities of Huizhou 惠州, Guangzhou 廣州 and Chaozhou 潮州), brought a statue of the god Pak Tai (北帝) and the pestilence stopped. The story translates the power of Pak Tai (Bei Di in Mandarin ) whose name means ‘Emperor of the North’, a powerful Taoist deity capable of controlling the elements. With his powers, Pak Tai is also known as the ‘Superior Ruler of the Dark Heavens’ (玄天上帝).
The temple was completed in 1783 to honor the god. It face the south-west and the rocky island of Shek Kwu Chau (石鼓洲) functions as a screen which protects the temple against evil spirits.
Inside the temple, the statue of Pak Tai is flanked by human-sized statues of the wrath-filled generals Heng and Ha (哼哈二將). Heng the red one – who can emit deadly rays from his nose, and Ha, the blue one – who have mastered the secret of exhaling a poisonous gas.
Although Pak Tai is the main god who resides in the Palace of Jade Void, the temple is also home to Guanyin (觀音) the Goddess of Mercy, a local god of the territory (土地神), Tin Hau (天后), the goddess who protects the seafarer and the Tai Sui (太歲) or Sixty Gods of Time.
The ear-shaped roof, the carved miniatures that adorn the walls, the finesse of the wood-carving and the colorful sculpted dragons that dominate the roofs are classic features of south China’s Lingnan (嶺南) architecture. Cheung Chau’s Pak Tai Temple is a true cultural gem not to miss in Hong-Kong.
The Bun Festival (包節)
Like the construction of the temple, the birth of the Bun Festival is linked the the plague. Locals built the temple in 1783 to thank the god Pak Tai for getting rid of the plague. One hundred years later, in 1894, an outbreak of plague caused the death of many islanders, but Pak Tai was not helping.
The story goes that a native from Chaozhou (潮州) became possessed with the spirit of Pak Tai and asked the people of Cheung Chau to build a chair with knives facing upwards. The possessed announced that he had to sit on the throne and be paraded in the streets of the village and visit each house. In the end, the possessed did not suffer any injuries from the knives and the plague left the island.
This story is the basis for this festival which also known as Ta Chiu 打醮 – Taoist festival for dispelling evil spirits.
How to get there
From Central Ferry Piers, there is a ferry every 30 minutes to Cheung Chau. The Temple is about 10 minute walk from Cheung Chau Ferry pier.