Mooncakes, memories and the Mid-Autumn Festival: when seasonal anticipation added to the excitement and everyone joined in the fun

Mooncakes, memories and the Mid-Autumn Festival: when seasonal anticipation added to the excitement and everyone joined in the fun

In today’s interconnected world, many consider absence of seasonality a good thing; enhanced consumer choice, to have whatever one wants, when one wants it, can only be seen in a positive light, however impractical these desires. Even the most cursory tour of Hong Kong’s wet markets and supermarkets makes this point plain; almost anything imaginable can be obtained, from virtually anywhere – for a price.

Curiously, the same people who strive to be “in the moment” through yoga, meditation and other “mindfulness” activities, often see no inherent contradiction with a desire for field-ripened summer strawberries, or fresh avocados in a northern hemisphere winter.

Loss of the sense of anticipation of long-awaited annual pleasures inevitably blunts the enjoyment. After all, what is a treat if it can be had for the asking at any time, just by being able to afford the price tag? Gradually, as with any source of enjoyment, the bar must continue to rise – there is simply no other way to keep the dopamine flowing.

But nevertheless, some things can be enjoyed only once a year, whoever one is, and however much one might be prepared to spend. Among them is the Mid-Autumn Festival, which, like Christmas, Lunar New Year and Easter, only comes around annually.

Mooncakes, memories and the Mid-Autumn Festival: when seasonal anticipation added to the excitement and everyone joined in the fun

Expatriate children having fun during the Mid-Autumn Festival in Hong Kong in 1977. Photo: SCMP

In the weeks leading up to the festival, lanterns of all shapes and sizes appear in paper-goods shops. Picturesque and accessible, the Mid-Autumn Festival has always been a favourite Chinese celebration among Europeans long-resident in Hong Kong and elsewhere in China – sometimes with curious results.

In The Road (1959), Austin Coates sardonically observed a Mid-Autumn Festival party given by a European woman, the wife of a senior business executive, who fancied herself as a culturally sensitive artist. “The festival was entirely Chinese, the only Europeans who took part being those invited by their Chinese friends.”

This individual, Coates tartly noted, “not merely gave a party of her own, but actually had the nerve to hire a Chinese junk (complete with the family of fishermen, whose only home it was) to give it in. She then decorated the junk with coloured lanterns, and invited Chinese guests to attend, which, most of them being business associates of her husband, they reluctantly did”.

The cultural tokenism was apparent in her remark that: “I can’t do without my one evening in the year in the Chinese style. After all, what’s the use of living here if we don’t take part sometimes, just the littlest bit?”

Like Christmas pudding in other cultures, for many Hong Kong people, mooncakes are not longed for at other times; once a year is quite enough.

Mooncakes, memories and the Mid-Autumn Festival: when seasonal anticipation added to the excitement and everyone joined in the fun

Han Suyin, author of A Many Splendoured Thing, in which she recalls a last gift of mooncakes on a family visit to China’s interior. Photo: Tony Barnard/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

As with other festival foods, regional variations are a matter of individual taste. In her semi-autobiographical novel A Many-Splendoured Thing (1952), Han Suyin described a last family visit to the interior in 1949, just before the Communist assumption of power, and a gift of mooncakes.

“I did not like the bloated, Falstaffian, Cantonese mooncakes, with their thick walls and monstrous insides full of duck egg and ham, sugared fruit and nuts. I liked the small, flaky mooncakes of the North, with the white wafer envelope and their thin pounded, almost nut and date filling.”

In contemporary Hong Kong, some eat mooncakes only because it is the expected thing to do during a seasonal visit; a couple of slices washed down with a cup of tea happily suffice. In the search of “healthier” options, lard and sugar have been reduced. Ice-cream variants and different fruit and nut pastes have come and gone.

Mooncakes, memories and the Mid-Autumn Festival: when seasonal anticipation added to the excitement and everyone joined in the fun

Beijing-style mooncakes. Photo: Shutterstock

Every festival time brings forth a fresh innovation, which – depending on the public reception – either becomes part of an annual offering, or sinks without trace.

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