The rules are simple: grab some tofu, throw the tofu, run and laugh.
The watery bean curd, greyish-white in hue, flies in the air and splashes on everything. It splashes on cars and buildings, on people’s faces and clothes, on the camera of the local TV crew, and obviously also on my lens too. It stays on your clothes, it sticks into your hair, it gets under your nails. If you are not careful, sooner or later some kid will smear a handful of tofu on your face.
Tofu Festival is a unique event. It takes place in one small village in Guangdong province, Shègǎngxià 社岗下村, on the 13th day of the first month of the lunar calendar. Every year since four centuries. It was commenced and it is still run by local inhabitants, mostly of the Lin clan. They belong to the Hakka ethnic group. This festival is therefore family business; but anyone can join.
First, ceremonies are held in the local ancestral temple. Parades, offerings, firecrackers, lion dance, all the elements of a traditional Chinese festivity can be observed here, South China-style. There’s a stage with music and dances, there’s stalls with eats and drinks. Snacks, obviously, include both savory and sweet preparations of tofu. But we are all waiting for the climax: the tofu war. To prepare the several thousands of tons of weight of the “ammunition” for the battle, villagers start to make the tofu weeks ahead. They use gypsum as the coagulant (石膏豆腐). I walked around the village with my friend, Ajun.
He was born and raised in a nearby village, but this actually makes him also a foreigner here, like me. Several households are still busy making the tofu. Lots of tofu. Hot soymilk sloshes with bang against the bottoms of plastic buckets, releasing clouds of steam into the cold air. People flock in to take bowlfuls of freshly-made white goodness. They will use it soon, in the battle. Or maybe they will take it home and eat it, who knows. We get back to the center of the village and the majority of the attendees is already wearing raincoats for protection.
There is something surreal in this sight: hundreds of simple, disposable plastic raincoats of different colors are slowly moving through the muddy village square. They are all going somewhere, but where? Okay, now I see. Lots of people are cramming around two big army trucks from which tofu will be distributed. We approach one of them too. Portly boys are standing on the top of the vehicle and shouting at the frenzied crowd, asking them not to climb on it. Then, there’s the signal to begin the battle! The boys start to give out the tofu in a chaotic fashion. In a matter of seconds everyone and everything is covered with bean curd. It’s like a snowball fight in a region that sees no snow. I am taking photographs, trying to protect my camera as much as possible. In vain. The lens is soon covered with sticky substance. To take the next snapshot I need to quickly wipe the glass. Over and over again.
I see an Indian in the crowd. Maybe the only non-Chinese here except me. I guess all this reminds him of Holi, but with just one color: white; and wet jelly instead of dry powder. Any tofu will do, but it shouldn’t be too solid – firm tofu won’t stick to the victim. It also can’t be too soft. It has to have enough consistence to be grabbed and thrown. Gosh, I am already completely covered with it by now. I will hide my camera for a minute, to throw several clods of bean curd at the others too. It’s fun!
At some point the turmoil of the battle fades a bit. Not for long, though. Suddenly, a huge container in the middle of the square is opened and some guys jump inside to take and distribute more tofu to the crowd. Instead of saying “thank you”, the crowd simply snowballs them back, turning their clothes into wet rags and their hair into a total mess. The walls of the container, similarly to every other surface in the village, became a Jackson Pollock-like canvas for the lumps of bean curd. After this last wave of white fury everything calms down. Still laughing, people are walking away to their homes, as if nothing had happened. Nothing except tofu in their eyebrows and tofu in their socks. Ajun’s friends will take us back home by car, of course after cushioning the seats with some plastic foil, so we can place our dirty butts on it. Oh boy, what a day.
For the curious ones, Shegangxia Village location is as follows:
People’s Republic of China > Guangdong Province > 佛冈县 Fogang County > 高岗镇 Gaogang town > 社岗下村 Shegangxia Village. Chinese characters for “Tofu Festival” are: 豆腐节, and “Tofu War” would be: 豆腐大战.