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AP PHOTOS: Hong Kong's colorful Bun Festival returns after COVID-19 cancellations

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong's colorful Bun Festival is back after three years of COVID-19 restrictions.

Visitors packed the tiny island of Cheung Chau to watch children parade in costumes and to eat buns stamped with the Chinese characters for “peace” and “safety.”

The festival's highlight is a midnight “bun-scrambling” competition in which climbers race up a tower covered with plastic buns, trying to grab as many as possible. It was suspended for decades after an accident in 1978 when a collapse injured many, and only restarted in 2005.

After COVID-19, the bun scramble has returned, but for this year, it’s limited to one smaller tower.

The festival's comeback is a sign that normal life is returning to Hong Kong after its tight pandemic restrictions.

During the parade, children dressed as legendary deities or historic characters are carried on stands above the heads of the crowd through the island's narrow lanes.

This year, some wore firefighter costumes to pay tribute to the Hong Kong rescue crews that helped search for earthquake survivors in Turkey in February. Cantonese opera artists also staged performances in a bamboo theater.

“Everyone is so happy," said Cheung Chau resident Chow Hoi-kiu. "The performers are having a hard day. They started the day’s preparation early. I’m sure it’s tough and so we are here to watch and support them."

There were long lines outside shops selling steam buns and stores stocked with bun-themed souvenirs.

Kwok Siu-kan, owner of the Kwok Kam Kee Cake Shop, said she hopes the buns will bring people prosperity.

"If you eat the buns, you will have even more peace and safety," Kwok said.

The event, also known as the Cheung Chau Jiao Festival, has been celebrated for more than 100 years, according to the Intangible Cultural Heritage Office. It says that according to folklore, residents started the rituals and traditions to dispel disaster and pray for blessings after the island was devastated by a plague.

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Associated Press news assistant Annie Cheung contributed to this report.