Although this is our first time celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival, I think we had no less fun than any of the locals. The kids proudly dressed in their traditional Chinese clothes and I even tried my hand at making Congee. Our version certainly had its own twists and with night temperatures finally allowing to drop below 30°C, the lantern-lit beach was magical at full moon. Although we were a little less hands-on in making many of the items for the celebration, almost every piece used has a story to tell - which I love to share!
The festival is in some ways similar to Thanksgiving, but has ancient Chinese religious origins and is celebrated on the fifteenth of August in the Chinese lunisolar calendar.
Mid-Autumn festival (or Moon Festival or Mooncake Festival) stems from an age-old legend that is celebrated by many people in Asia. This holiday dates back 3000 years when the emperors of China worshipped the moon for bountiful harvests. The full moon on the said day is believed to be the brightest and biggest of the year and coincides with the harvest time of autumn.
“One year, the ten suns rose in the sky together, causing great disaster to the people. Yi shot down nine of the suns and left only one to provide light. An immortal admired Yi and sent him the elixir of immortality.”
We started the celebration off on our patio, nestled under lanterns where we ate a tasty Congee (a type of rice soup) as starter. We had a more western spaghetti carbonara as main meal, but to be fair we ate all of it with chopsticks – even our 2-year old! As dessert we enjoyed our mooncake paired with good coffee and fresh fruit, when the gorgeous full moon rose to complete a perfect evening.
After dinner we strolled down the hill to the beach to join the other families with their picnic blankets and nibbles surrounded by countless lanterns. On the way out, our eldest insisted on taking his fishing rod, and with no aspirations at all I grabbed bait and a pocket knife. While we were sipping our wine and absorbing the tranquility, the boys started fishing under the moon-lit sky with no hooks, only a little bait tied into the fishing line and a toy fish dangling from the tip. I think their lanterns must have really paved their way to good luck, for it was not long until a small stripy fish held on tightly to the bait and the boys landed it on the beach. For our little boys who are unquestionably fanatical fishermen, the evening could not have ended on a better note. After getting a kiss good-night, the fish went back into its ocean home and we returned to ours with a happy heart.
There is a myth about the festival that I personally really enjoyed hearing, and is summarized well on Wikipedia:
“In the ancient past, there was a hero named Hou Yi who was excellent at archery. His wife was Chang'e. One year, the ten suns rose in the sky together, causing great disaster to the people. Yi shot down nine of the suns and left only one to provide light. An immortal admired Yi and sent him the elixir of immortality. Yi did not want to leave Chang'e and be immortal without her, so he let Chang'e keep the elixir. However, Peng Meng, one of his apprentices, knew this secret. So, on the fifteenth of August in the Chinese lunisolar calendar, when Yi went hunting, Peng Meng broke into Yi's house and forced Chang'e to give the elixir to him. Chang'e refused to do so. Instead, she swallowed it and flew into the sky. Since she loved her husband and hoped to live nearby, she chose the moon for her residence. When Yi came back and learned what had happened, he felt so sad that he displayed the fruits and cakes Chang'e liked in the yard and gave sacrifices to his wife. People soon learned about these activities, and since they also were sympathetic to Chang'e they participated in these sacrifices with Yi.”
The fire dragon dance plays a central role in the Mid-Autumn Festival, and the dragon is to bless the people and drive away plague and bad luck. The Chinese dragon has very different connotations than the European dragon. In European cultures the dragon is an aggressive fire-breathing creature, while in Chinese culture the dragon is a cultural and spiritual symbol for prosperity and good luck, as well as a rain deity that fosters harmony.
The incense-lit, straw-filled dragon is held up with bamboo sticks and moves to the rhythmic beat of echoing drums. Impressive displays of fire dragons can be seen parading through the streets in Pok Fu Lam (pre-corona) along crowded streets packed with cameras. Unfortunately these festivities were cancelled this year, as was the Dragon Boat Festival which should have taken place in June.
Lanterns play a big role in the festival, which come in many designs and are thought to light the way to good luck and prosperity. The rabbit features frequently in the lantern designs, which has to do with the legend about the Jade Rabbit, which is described lower down.
In Southern China people eat mooncake and seasonal fruit to celebrate the harvest (well, who knows what would be seasonal in Hong Kong since almost everything is imported). Large baskets of only the best fruit and mooncakes in extravagant boxes are for sale in the supermarkets to be bought as gifts.
Mooncake, a Chinese bakery product, is traditionally eaten at Mid-Autumn festival and is considered an indispensable delicacy. Traditionally, Chinese families would bake them together around the time of the harvest festival. The mooncakes have highly varied fillings ranging from traditional sweet-bean or lotus-seed paste (these are an acquired taste) to custard and chocolate, which come highly recommended. They are symbols of family reunion and happiness. Mooncakes are sold in elaborate boxes and are often used as gifts to family and friends. They do not come cheap. Most are shaped round, like the moon, and the surface is pressed with a design of Chang’e, cassia trees or the Moon-Palace.
I am very excited to have found a few traditional mooncake molds in a small museum in Tai O.
The expression “wet market” is rooted in Britain’s former Asian colonies (Hong Kong and Singapore) and could be translated as “fresh” market. Wet markets contain an abundance of literally wet goods with large amounts of water used to keep seafood alive and vegetables look clean.
Although not all wet markets sell live animals, most do sell live seafood which is slaughtered by the vendor upon customer purchase. Frogs and poultry are also not uncommon.
I could not bear to have a fish killed for me (never mind a chicken), but we have bought an already dead fish a few times which our boys had great fun cleaning and cooking.
Fruit and vegetables are generally cheaper than in supermarkets, and the feast in variety of fresh products that we are not familiar with is fascinating. Communication at the wet markets remains challenging as most vendors do not speak English, thus we have often bought things having no idea what they are or how to prepare them. Good fun.
This round the kids and I went to a Hong Kong Wet Market in Tung Chung, which is about a 20min bus ride from us. I decided to arrange the fruit in the shape of a rainbow to symbolize hope during this pandemic. The kids loved it.
Our centrepiece would not be complete without something made by the kids. The rabbit was made in record time and barely had time to dry.
I drew the outline of a rabbit onto a piece of paper and traced the inverse of it onto another paper. Both boys got to colour in one rabbit with chalk paint. This time they chose their own colours and I love what they did!
I cut out the rabbits, sewed them together with a sewing machine and stuffed it with recycled bubble wrap. Surrounded by gorgeous fruit, the rabbit got a colourful nest inside the bird cage.
The legend of the Jade Rabbit on the moon (taken from chinaculture.org):
“This legend is considered to be an extension of Chang'e flying to the Moon. It tells about three sages who transformed themselves into pitiful old men.
One day they met a fox, a monkey and a rabbit, and they begged for food. The fox and the monkey shared their food with the old men; but the rabbit, with nothing to share, jumped into a blazing fire to offer his own flesh instead.
The sages were so touched by the rabbit's kindness that they sent it to live in the Moon Palace, where it became the Jade Rabbit.
Chang'e, who lived alone after arriving in the moon, liked the Jade Rabbit at the first sight, and therefore kept it company. As the time went by, Chang'e and Jade Rabbit became inseparable friends.”
Since Mid-Autumn Festival is also known as Lantern Festival, it is needless to say that lanterns form a big part of the celebration. Lanterns have been associated with the festival since the Tang dynasty.
Today the lanterns serve a practical purpose in creating a festive atmosphere and of lighting the way as friends and family stay up late to appreciate the full moon until late into the night. Kids carry them for fun.
The lanterns also symbolize family reunion and fertility and are said to light the way to good luck and prosperity.
Although my own creativity was not the essence of this festival, all of us did contribute to the table decoration in the form of making our own placemats.
Because of the change of season and the association with autumn leaves falling, we picked leaves from the garden and used them to print and rub patterns from. Some of us placed leaves under a piece of paper and rubbed over them with wax crayons, others painted the leaves with water colours and made prints on paper from them. Afterwards I folded the edges over and sewed over them with a sewing machine.
I think the placemats turned out striking and extremely personal. There was no quarrel about who would sit where once the placemats were put out. Our littlest took his seat long before I had finished setting the table. Dressed in his traditional Chinese suit.
Peng Chau means “flat island” and is our favourite neighbouring island of only one square kilometre. It is home to plenty of pockets where life is a little slower and more rustic. Cars are not permitted on the island but it can easily be navigated within 1 hour’s walk. From Discovery Bay it can be reached by a characterful old-style ferry that crosses the calm ocean unhurriedly. Our boys love to watch the many small fish jump out along the boat and find Jellyfish and our dog, Eva, is always happy to come along and take in the many smells.
Although the island is home to many temples and famous for its seafood, our favourite shops include a bakery, a quirky antique shop and a porcelain shop. If you were to ask our boys, their answer would undoubtedly be the wet market, where much too fresh fish and seafood are sold.
“A Noy” Bakery has filled our little boys’ hungry tummies many times and we always stroll through the “To Tsu Kok” antique shop, from which our home slowly acquires beautiful pieces.
At “Chiu Kee Porcelain Factory”, you can find hand-painted porcelain items by the 70 something ceramic painter Lam Kew. I have fallen in love with her range, and she remains as one of the last to produce hand-painted traditional items in Hong Kong. I am slowly building my collection, and her rice bowls and soy sauce dishes looked splendid on our festive table.
Yuen Po Bird Garden (situated right next to the famous Flower Market in Mong Kok) is a hidden Gem of Hong Kong and is a charming corner of the city that offers a glimpse into traditional songbird keeping in the surroundings of a traditional Chinese garden. Besides watching traders sell birds, accessories and cages, you can witness one of Hong Kong’s phenomena of “taking birds for a walk”. Not many visitors get to see this local life. If you are lucky, you get to see Hong Kong’s last remaining bird cage maker, the 76-year-old Chan-Loc-choi crafting skillfully in his shop “Choi Kee”.
It is quite exciting to experience one of Hong Kong’s oldest traditions, but on the other hand it is forlorn to see so many birds in tiny cages. Our boys were mesmerized with both the lovely birds – especially the parrot that said “Hello Nora” - and the sundry live insects for sale.
We are excited to have bought a beautiful bamboo cage as a souvenir, which formed the centrepiece of our table.
As a side-note: Since we were talking about “Harvest Festival”, do yourself a favour and watch the documentary “Kiss the Ground”. Find it on Netflix. 😉