Anyone who saw the 2010 Hong Kong period drama, Echoes of the Rainbow – about a working-class Hong Kong family whose eldest son falls ill with leukaemia – will understand that mooncakes were a big deal around the 1960s.
In the film, eight year old Law Chun-yi sells counterfeit, autographed photographs of film stars to pay off instalments for much-prized, four-yolk mooncakes at the local bakery.
When his scam is discovered by his mother, the young child starts screaming in the street that all he wants to do is to eat a whole box of four-yolk mooncakes by himself.
It is a powerful, gut-wrenching scene, which highlights just how far Hong Kong’s economy has come in the 50 years since then.
The average clerk in Hong Kong in the 1960s earned HK$240 (about US$30) per month, so the cost of buying mooncakes for everyone – including the elderly members of the family and company bosses – which then cost HK$8.50 a box could mean a person spending a significant part of their monthly salary.
That is why, in the past, it was common for Hongkongers to pay money in monthly instalments into a plan called a “mooncake club” (月餅會) to ease the burden during the festive season.
According to Chinese custom, it is also considered unlucky to give a single gift.
Yet in those days, to have given two boxes of mooncakes would have been a huge financial undertaking, so, piggy biscuits became a popular accompanying gift.
Phoebe Cheng, associate director of sales and marketing at Kee Wah Bakery says the emergence of piggy biscuits came about because of both the bakers and consumers of mooncakes at the time.
Bakers used to bake a small piece of dough to test the temperature of their ovens and, in the end, they formed these bits of dough into biscuits – in the shape of little pigs – so that they could sell off the extra dough left over when making mooncakes.
As these biscuits do not contain any labour-intensive lotus root paste or expensive salted egg yolks, they became something inexpensive that adults would buy for their children before the Mid-Autumn Festival, so that they could save the expensive mooncakes for the family dinner.
Bakeries and restaurants selling the piggy biscuits began putting them in little baskets resembling pig cages and decorated them with colourful ribbons and tassels to make them more attractive to children.
The biscuits and “cages” then grew popular with youngsters, who would often place a candle inside the little baskets so that they also doubled-up as a makeshift lanterns.
Mooncake club coupons from the 1960s
It is interesting that, for a culture such as China’s, which is so entangled with superstition, the little pig cages containing the biscuits were based after things not associated with fun and games.
During the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, pig cages were weighed down with chains and used to trap and drown adulterers in rural China.
So, why would an instrument used for execution become part of such a symbolic holiday?
Cheng says that pigs and pig cages have many different meanings in Chinese culture.
“There’s an auspicious greeting we use during Lunar New Year, where we wish people good luck so they have riches flowing into their lives like ‘water into a pig’s cage’,” she says.
“The older generations also used to call young children in their family ‘little piggies’ as an endearing term, so to associate children with piglets and the cages that hold them during the Mid-Autumn Festival isn’t that big a stretch.”
The growth of the Hong Kong economy in recent decades means many residents now have the wealth to buy any gift for their family members, as well as a plethora of toys for children, so the piggy biscuits have – for many people – become just a distant memory.
Four-yolk mooncakes are still regarded as an expensive treat by many. A box of four, sold by Wing Wah Bakery, costs HK$458.
However, there now seems to have been something of a resurgence in the once-loved piggy biscuit treat – if only for nostalgic reasons.
Cheng says there will always be a group of people who prefer the simple taste of piggy biscuits, but – most importantly – they are part of Hong Kong’s heritage.
“We want to make sure the tradition stays alive and pass it on to the next generation.” Cheng says.
Kee Wah Bakery’s piggy biscuits cost HK$30 each.