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City Weekend

Festive glow: Hongkongers look to the heavens as they celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival

It’s that time of the year again when people tuck into mooncakes and other delicacies and revel in a tradition stretching back 2,500 years

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 September, 2016, 9:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 September, 2016, 8:16am

The Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. Its origins can be traced back almost 2,500 years to the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE), when kings were said to worship the goddess of the moon and ask for good luck, according to Food and Festivals of China (2006) by Yan Liao.

Women have traditionally been put in charge of organising the festival because “the full moon represents the fullness of the yin element”, and they represent the yin force among humans, Liao states.

An altar might be set up in the family courtyard so that sacrifices can be made to the moon. Round fruits are eaten because they symbolise fullness and unity. All these activities are supposed to take place after nightfall so the moon can be seen throughout.

Part of the event’s purpose is to celebrate the upcoming harvest. It is also said to be a time for people to celebrate marriage, as well as for young people to attend matchmaking events such as dances.

Tu’er Ye (rabbit god) is an important icon for the festival in Beijing because he is the moon rabbit of Chang’e (Chinese goddess of the moon), who features in a story that has been used to explain the festival’s origins.

It is said that her archer husband Hou Yi shot down nine of the world’s 10 suns, leaving one, after they scorched the earth. He was given the elixir of immortality as a reward, but apprentice archer Fengmeng broke into his home and tried to force Chang’e to give it to him.

She refused, drinking it herself, before flying up to settle on the moon. When Hou Yi discovered what had happened, he was upset, so displayed her favourite fruits and cakes, and made sacrifices to her.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, Mid-Autumn is probably best known for the tradition of eating mooncakes – the Cantonese pastry with an eggy surprise inside. A mooncake’s round shape is supposed to symbolise completeness, which is why they are considered a good accompaniment for family reunions.

They are said to have been created by Ming revolutionaries during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), who supposedly hid messages inside them as part of their successful attempt to overthrow the Mongolians. Traditionally, a senior family member would cut the mooncake and hand it out to family members. The sweet snacks were sometimes home made, but nowadays people are perhaps more likely to buy them from a Chinese bakery and give them as a gift to wish loved ones a long and happy life.

Other popular dishes enjoyed at Mid-Autumn include hairy crab, roasted duck with taro, pumpkins and river snails. Both pumpkins and taro are said to bring good luck and wealth, while snails are supposed to brighten your eyes. Barbecues are also popular.

In Hong Kong, the event is celebrated with the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance, in which 300 performers use 70,000 incense sticks to create a 67-metre-long dragon in Causeway Bay. The three-day performance originates from about 1880, when the villagers of Tai Hang are said to have killed a serpent that vanished the next morning.

A plague subsequently spread through Tai Hang, killing many people, so one village elder suggested they perform a dragon dance and set off sulphuric firecrackers to drive away the disease. According to the story, the dance was successful, so it continues to be performed to this day.

This year, the government’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department will also stage a dragon dance in Pok Fu Lam, as well as lantern carnivals in Tsim Sha Tsui, Tin Shui Wai and Tai Po.

For more information visit the government’s website.

Mooncake waste reduced ... but not enough

Hongkongers are becoming increasingly waste-conscious as they celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, but there is still a long way to go before the event gets the approval of green groups, figures suggest.

Local environmental charity Green Power estimated about one million mooncakes were thrown away last year, down significantly from 1.85 million in 2014, when each Hong Kong family discarded 0.76 mooncakes for every eight that they ate.

The campaigners’ survey suggested 70 per cent of Hongkongers were not even particularly keen on mooncakes, with 20 per cent expressing a firm dislike.

Green Power is urging people to recycle packaging from their discarded mooncakes. They estimate it costs about HK$30,000 to incinerate the packaging waste, while between HK$200,000 and HK$250,000 could be generated if it was recycled.

They are also concerned by the numbers of discarded lanterns; almost 1.5 million were thrown away last year, even though 75 per cent of families said they would reuse their plastic ones. One tradition involves writing a riddle on a lantern, which are intended to symbolise fertility, and asking a friend to try to understand its meaning.

Meanwhile the number of glow sticks being discarded appears to be on the rise; 25.8 million were binned in 2013, 36 million in 2014 and 40 million in 2015.
Tracey Read, founder of Plastic Free Seas, said that while the levels of waste created by the festival were a concern, she had noticed steps to make it more eco-friendly, most notably by replacing glow sticks with LED lights.

“We are trying to get across the idea that you can be a bit more creative about it, particularly because it is a one night show,” she said.

“The food waste from the festival is still an issue, but there has been a significant decrease in the amount of plastic packaging – in that sense the environmental campaign has done well.”