Kate Farr takes a look at the origins of Mid-Autumn Festival, some traditional celebrations, and how Discovery Bay marks these colourful festivities.
Celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month each year, Mid- Autumn Festival is a big deal all over Hong Kong, coinciding with the full harvest moon. This year’s festival falls on September 13, and whether it’s your first time celebrating or an event your family regularly enjoys, there’s a whole lot of fun to be had.
While many cultures mark some sort of harvest festival, China has been celebrating this ancient seasonal rite for nearly three millennia, originally paying homage to a mythical dragon that brought rain for the farmers’ crops.
Islands District Council Member (Discovery Bay) Amy Yung explains: “Mid-Autumn Festival is an ancient Chinese traditional custom that goes back thousands of years to the Shang dynasty, and is rooted in a communal celebration of the annual harvest. At the same time, it marks the changing of the seasons as part of the continual cycle of life. Successive generations are also part of this cycle, so it is natural for all the family, young and old, to get together to celebrate.”
Born 10 days after Mid-Autumn Festival, Amy shares that she was named after the moon goddess, Chang’e. Said to bestow great beauty and romantic good fortune upon her followers, these days, Chang’e is honoured by burning incense, performing lion dances, and carrying lanterns – which are said to allow her to see her worshippers more clearly.
And what is a celebration without food? Mid-Autumn Festival’s very own delicacy is the mooncake – an acquired taste, and an indulgent one. Made from an intricately decorated pastry case that is filled with either lotus seed or red-bean paste, mooncakes also traditionally contain salted duck egg yolk, resulting in a rich, unctuous texture.
If that isn’t quite to your taste, there are plenty more contemporary interpretations of the mooncake, including chocolate, ice cream, durian and even peanut butter versions that are every bit as celebratory. Most of Hong Kong’s luxury hotels sell beautifully packaged mooncakes that make great gifts. Maxim’s mooncakes, available all over town, make for a tasty, low-cost alternative.
Mid-Autumn Festival also coincides with hairy-crab season. September through November, hairy crabs migrate from their freshwater habitat toward the ocean, and they are caught by mainland Chinese fishermen in river deltas. Supplies are limited, so you pay more than you would for a regular freshwater crab. Best accompanied by Chinese rice wine or ginger tea, the hairy crab’s flesh (particularly the female’s) is renowned for its sweetness, while its roe is creamy and buttery.
You’ll have to head into town for your annual hairy-crab fix, but check out the special Mid- Autumn Festival menus at the Auberge Hong Kong, Club Siena, Discovery Bay Recreation Club (DBRC) and Peony for steamed garoupa and other traditional Chinese delicacies.
Lighting the night
You can join lantern parades all over Hong Kong on September 24, but it has become traditional for DB residents to gather on Tai Pak Wan and celebrate the festival as a community. And while the festive atmosphere and picnicking families are a heart-warming sight, there is one element of the celebration that is not so welcome – glow sticks.
Dana Winograd of Plastic Free Seas (PFS) and DB Green explains, “The first problem with glow sticks is that they are wasteful. They are a single-use plastic toy, used for a few hours and then thrown away. If they are disposed of correctly, they end up in the landfill, and we all know that the landfills are getting full. If they are not thrown away properly, they can end up in the ocean or in the environment, adding to the problem of plastic marine pollution.”
Glow sticks’ outer plastic casings are not the only environmental issue. “Glow sticks contain chemicals to make them glow and so they contaminate the water and sand if they are cracked open,” Dana adds.
DB Green (now joined by PFS) has previously organised beach clean-ups at Tai Pak Wan on the day after the Mid-Autumn Festival for the past 11 years. In the past, they would collect upwards of 1,000 glow sticks, but recent attempts to inform people about the environmental hazards have reduced this number exponentially.
“This campaign has been very successful and last year we collected less than 100 glow sticks on the beach,” Dana says. “There was a marked decrease the previous year as well.
“Facebook posts encouraging people not to use glow sticks or to use less have helped inform parents of the issue,” Dana adds. “And we talk about the use of glow sticks in our work with students in schools. When children understand the impacts that these single-use plastics can have, they often opt for alternative ways to celebrate.”
Going forward, PFS and DB Green’s mission is to keep encouraging people to veto glow stick-use and to clean up after themselves at the end of the night, thereby reducing the amount of plastic waste created at the event.
“People can use reusable items instead of single-use items – reusable lanterns, rechargeable battery-operated toys and flashlights,” Dana points out.
Amy concurs that glow sticks are a no-no on our beaches, urging families instead to get crafty. “In order to protect our environment, I prefer not to promote the use of glow sticks,” she says. “I remember during my younger days, we made our own lanterns, which was more creative and fun. The main materials we used were waste paper and haddock skins. Cheap and very effective, plus it was all our own work!”
Pinterest has lots of examples of simple lantern-making guides to follow for all age groups, or you can buy paper lanterns in every conceivable shape and size all over Hong Kong throughout the festive period.
DB kids can also make their own ethical and eco-friendly lanterns at the DBRC on the evening of September 13.
Of course, much like Christmas or Thanksgiving, the Mid-Autumn celebrations are a time to gather as a family and reflect on the year that has passed. In Hong Kong, the day after the festival is a public holiday, allowing families to eat together on the evening of the festival itself and rest up the following day.
Amy recalls family celebrations in DB back in the mid-1990s: “My whole family used to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival together. After dinner, we went down to the beach – we brought along mooncakes, desserts and fruit. The memory of three generations gathering together enjoying those supertasty foods under the full moon is still as fresh and sweet today as it was then. The silver light reflecting off the gently rippling sea was quite magical.”