Memories of Hong Kong's Mid-Autumn Festival and 5 alternative spots to celebrate full moon
When retired architect Alfred Tam was growing up in Kowloon in the 1950s, the eve of Mid-Autumn Festival meant one thing: fire.
Every year, Tam joined the other children living in his tong lau building to play with rabbit lanterns on the roof. Then they got up to more devious activities.
“The older children, the naughty ones, burned candles – as many as 20 or 30 at one time,” he recalls. “When we were about 12 years old, we began playing with wax burning.”
Many youngsters took to boiling candle wax in mooncake tins or other containers, often shooting water pistols at the molten wax, which caused spectacular sizzling and explosions of steam.
The practice not only left masses of melted wax across the city, it sometimes caused serious burns among children and led to a ban on wax burning in public spaces such as parks.
But gatherings to celebrate Mid-Autumn continue, and buses and trains will run all night on the festival to ferry families and friends to full moon picnics around the city.
Thousands head for Victoria Park and the Cultural Centre piazza where annual lantern displays are held, but it’s the countless small gatherings in parks, on beaches and on rooftops that give the holiday its unique atmosphere.
For once, it seems as though the people of Hong Kong collectively take a breath, lean back under the stars and begin to enjoy life.
For architect William Lim, whose dome-like installation for the annual Lantern Wonderland display in Victoria Park won an American Institute of Architects award in 2003, the Mid-Autumn Festival has always been about simple pleasures.
“Kids would take their lanterns and go to the neighbourhood streets and meet other kids and see what lanterns each had,” he says.
Lim also enjoys watching the annual fire dragon dance in Tai Hang, but he finds the festivities have become a little too crowded these days. “This year my family will watch the full moon with friends at sea,” he says.
In 2011, Lim returned to Victoria Park to create another lantern installation – a giant fish made of more than 1,000 globe lanterns in red, gold and yellow fabric – that set a Guinness World Record for the largest sculpture made with lanterns.
“I love lanterns, if you haven’t noticed,” he says. “Not the Hello Kitty ones, but the traditional rabbit-, peach- or fish-shaped ones.”
Whatever their shape, the lanterns you see on Mid-Autumn eve are increasingly illuminated by LED lights instead of candles. Police began cracking down on wax burning in the 1990s, and in 2006 the Leisure and Cultural Services Department banned the practice in public parks, beaches and barbecue sites. Offenders are liable to a fine of up to HK$2,000 fine and up to 14 days' jail.
It’s a far cry from the scene 20 years ago. “The local parks would be covered in hardened red wax patches whose waxy skin would be visible for months,” says long-time Sheung Wan resident John Batten.
Zoe Li recalls heading out from her family’s Mid-Levels home with friends, backpacks full of candles and cake tins, to boil wax at a neighbourhood sitting-out area: “When we passed by cops, we freaked out and ran away like we’d been caught at a burglary.”
Festivities could be quite riotous in the rural areas of Lantau, where artist Nadim Abbas grew up: “We use to make very special ‘birthday cakes’ on the roadside by sticking firecrackers into cow dung.”
Villagers would gather to light enormous lanterns that were almost as big as houses. “One year, a lantern was blown on to the side of a village house by a gust of wind before it could take off. The whole house was nearly burned to the ground,” he says.
Maybe it’s the full moon, but there has always been a mischievous side to the festival. “In the good old days, Repulse Bay was where the international school kids went to get drunk,” says marketing manager Kylie Chan.
Arts administrator Stella Tsui remembers when musicians from Kwun Tong would gather under the waterfront flyover for a raucous “guerilla gig”. And while there is tighter policing, this playful spirit lives on.
There’s one person who won’t be joining in the fun, though: Kwan Wing-ho, whose family has run the Bo Tai Hang lantern shop on Queen’s Road for more than 20 years.
“When I was a kid, we didn’t have any of this,” he says, gesturing to an array of plastic lanterns hanging from the ceiling. “We’d go to the roof of our tong lau and make lanterns out of pomelo skins.”
Nowadays, after presiding over the mad rush for lanterns, he has a Mid-Autumn feast with his staff and then heads home. “All I want to do is sleep.”
If you are looking for alternatives to the usual sites to celebrate the full moon, here are five that fit the bill
Lei Yue Mun Point: this rocky outcrop has a sandy beach and a glorious view of the harbour. And since it’s not an official beach or park, it is free of finger-wagging officials telling you what not to do.
Long Ke Wan: just 20 minutes by foot from the nearest road, this otherwise isolated beach offers peace and quiet with one of the most spectacular night skies in Hong Kong.
Shek Tong Tsui Pier: you’ll find a cross-section of Sai Wan residents relaxing here on any given night, but Mid-Autumn eve is especially lively as people set up barbecues and even karaoke machines powered by portable generators.
Jordan Valley Park: one of the city’s newest parks, the sprawling lawn at Jordan Valley offers ample space for a full moon picnic.
New Territories: if you want the lantern experience without the crowds of Victoria Park, check out the celebrations that takes place in Sha Tin Park on September 26 and Tsing Yi Park on September 28.
How to capture the full moon in all its glory
It's Mid-Autumn Festival, you raise your camera phone to the night sky and snap a picture of the full moon - only to find that your device has transformed the celestial body into an unimpressive speck of light. So how do you capture the full moon in all its glory?
Photojournalist Derrick Chang says a long exposure is necessary. He recommends buying a zoom lens, tripod and a shutter release device for your camera.
But there's more to taking a great shot than technical prowess. "The composition is important and storytelling within the photo will make it more memorable," he says. "Thousands of people will be taking photos of the moon, but very few will use it as a backdrop to tell a story within the photo."