On the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, Asia celebrates the Harvest Moon Festival. Lions dance in China, Taiwan and Singapore. Japanese and Korean children make paper lanterns while in Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines, the older generation gazes ardently at the full moon. In all these countries, in one form or another, people give and receive moon cakes.
You’ve seen them before. Small, round, flat dials of flaky dough elaborately shaped as if carved from wood. Inside the cake lies an unctuous filling of savory meat, dried fruits, nuts or a sweet paste. Moon cakes are surprisingly heavy in the hand.
Myths shroud the origins of the Harvest Moon Festival and vary from one country to the next. In Vietnam, an unfortunate man named Cuội is transported into the skies on the branches of a magical banyan tree. To help him find his way home, children light lanterns at the Harvest Moon Festival.
In China, there’s the legend of the archer Houyi, who shoots down 9 of the 10 suns to save the world from burning. To reward him for this feat, the gods give Houyi an immortality elixir. When a man tries to steal it, Houyi’s wife Chang’e takes it instead. She becomes the moon goddess. Every year, on the night of the brightest moon, Houyi sets out his wife’s favorite foods to tempt her back to earth.
As for the ubiquitous moon cakes, they too have a myth of their own. The year is 1368. Rebels plot to overthrow the cruel Mongolian rulers of China. To succeed, the rebels need the support of the people but how to reach them all? By slipping a message inside their moon cakes. The revolt succeeds and the Ming dynasty is born.
For the Harvest Moon Festival, the Chinese feast on river snails, duck, pumpkin and taro, pears, watermelon, hairy crabs and, of course, the ubiquitous cakes. The dough is traditionally made with lard. The caloric content of a moon cake is astronomical.
Phoenix Bakery in Chinatown, Los Angeles is the go-to shop for moon cakes. We went to that bakery all the time when I was a kid though I can’t remember buying moon cakes. I hate them. I won’t touch them in any form and have never tried to bake my own.
Yet this is the signature dish of my character, Jin the cook, the unsung hero of my second novel, Peace Court. Jin’s cakes make her employer famous and his brothel, Del Monte House, one of the most popular in Shanghai. They cause Max the American to fall in love with Jin. Where did Jin learn to make these cakes? I wrote a short story to answer that question.
The first batch went to the pigs, the cakes so hard and unbending that even the animals left it to rot in the straw. The second batch was better, the sweet fermented beans a welcome treat for the servants. When the housekeeper tasted the third batch, she gave it the highest possible praise by taking an extra cake and popping it whole into her mouth. The girl made a fresh batch, singing the whole while, and it was her best ever.Karen Kao, “Moon Cakes” in Cha, June 2016
The Economist once described the pastries as edible hockey pucks. As gifts, however, moon cakes play a different role.
There was a time in China when businesses gave these cakes to government officials in exchange for favorable treatment. Think of pastries stuffed with gold flakes, shark’s fin or abalone. Or made from solid gold or silver. The elaborate packaging was ideal for concealing gifts of cash or liquor.
In 2013, Xi Jinping cracked down on moon cake corruption. The bribery may have become more subtle but the cakes continue to be
an indicator of important trends in consumption, innovation, corruption and grey-market trading.The Economist, “Reading the Crumbs: What a controversial pastry says about China’s economy”, 20 Sept 2018
This year, the start of the Harvest Moon Festival coincides with China’s National Day. October 1 marks the founding of the People’s Republic of China. In Beijing, that means parades. In Hong Kong, you get protests. These protests take the form of walkabouts while shouting protest slogans since all other forms of mass assembly have been banned.
Hong Kongers are relentless in their opposition to Beijing and its strong-arm tactics. They are also deviously creative. If a protest song like Glory to Hong Kong is banned, then the song is played without its lyrics. If certain words can no longer be said or printed without risk of arrest, then blank sheets of paper will serve.
How appropriate then that, for this Harvest Moon Festival, you can buy a moon cake with a secret protest message inside. Now this is a gift worth giving.