Sunday, September 20, 2015

Mooncake Festival Growing Up With Moon Symbols &Tradition

"The roundest moon can be seen in autumn. 
It is time for reunions. 
I wish you a happy mid-autumn day and a wonderful life - 1"


It is the usual greeting this month since the moon-cake festival is here so I thought I would write something significant about this yellow ball in the night sky.  

When I googled, 'moon' it was quite a surprise where I found more than 700 million entries on the subject.  I realised there was nothing much I could write about except my own moon-walk on earth. 
As a child, I didn't bother much about the festival itself because at the age of ten the reason for the celebration was not important. It was only in later years did I learn what the lantern festival meant. But I welcome the delicious moon-cakes and beautiful lanterns that came with the annual hoo-ha. 

"Summer ends, and Autumn comes, 
And he who would have it otherwise 
Would have high tide always and 
A full moon every night - 2 ."

Moon Symbol:

It had been a yearly affair since the 1950's and as far as I could remember my father would take me to Victoria Street to the old Empress Hotel to buy a few bags of tong chu pia home. No, there were no fancy boxes to put them in. 

They came in simple white wrapping paper placed in a brown paper bag with string carriers. Today's moon-cakes are placed in jewel cases that cost a fortune (sixty Singapore dollars for a box of four?)
What I could not forget during the yearly trip to Victoria Street was the same large scroll I saw hanging outside the hotel pillar as I looked up.  There was a painting of a beautiful, slim lady in ancient Chinese costume with the words, "Queen of the Moon Cakes" and behind her the radiantly full moon.

"It was fascination, I know 
Seeing you alone with the moonlight above
Then I touched your hand and next moment... 3."

They probably took her down at the end of the season to be displayed again for the next moon festival.

Now the moon-cake. It was sweetened red bean or lotus seed paste baked within a delicious outer layer. Although it could get stuck between the teeth eating was part of the fun. Also, mooncakes in the 50's were simple, without the exorbitant colours, designs, special names and yucky taste that is found today. 

Up till now, I've always enjoyed the simple dark brown bean-paste inside but without the yolk.  Cut equally into four pieces I could eat only one quarter a day for the next four days.  

"Good behaviour deserves a reward," remarked my mother. "Another four pieces for the next four days, if you behave. Otherwise, I shall eat them myself!" My dad would quietly walk away because he knew the fun was in the buying too.

But I always had my share.

Light Symbol:

I remember the intricate and thin bamboo frames that were shaped into celestial animals and what-have-you, covered by transparent coloured papers making cute lanterns that could be lighted up at night with its tiny candle within. 

"Careful," mother would warn sternly, "a steady hand lights the wick, not the lantern," always warning us that we need to beware of a burn-up if we were careless with the fragile, combustible and bright, luminous magic art pieces.
To me, it didn't matter what the lantern was shaped like. The flickers inside changed colours as I walked the shiny being around. As long as I could carry it in the dark as the proud owner I was happiest. Good that my mother bought three lanterns to distribute to a Malay friend, an Indian neighbour and a pretty girlfriend who lived down the road. 

"How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world - 4."

The friends were Hamid, who was so happy to be carrying one with me; the other was Naysar, in his sarong, who ran around the block with his fish lantern shouting, "Ikan, ikan."  He became a little looney I guess with the moon in full bloom.  We didn't think who we were, just children sharing in playful joy.
Nat King Cole; William Shakespeare; P. Ramlee; Hal Borland
The third friend was my heart crusher Mei Li and true to her name she was the prettiest girl in the vicinity. Short-haired, tomboyish, wide-eyed and fun, she readily accepted the butterfly lantern I offered her.

"Engkau laksana bulan, tinggi di-atas kayangan," crooned Hamid in Malay. It was one of P. Ramlee's famous songs and it meant, "Exquisite like the moon, you stand high above the rest." She did.

I enjoyed the moonlight nights very much. Did you?

A Happy Mid-Autumn Festival to all in Singapore and across the seas.

The symbolic allusion to the moon underlines the dominating power of the feminine. So, just to tickle your mind a little, could it be a power to which a little boy may have felt exposed?

This posting especially invites readers to comment on their own moon festival experience.
                                             Fascination: Sung by Nat Cole.

The Moon Cake Festival, Zhong Qiu Jie or Harvest Moon Festival falls on 27th September 2015.

The article is original and under a copyright.

In The Full Moon Flowers Blossom - Yue Yuan, Hua Hao - Zhou Xuan
Song: Yan Hua / Word: Fan Yanqiao

The floating scattered clouds
The bright moon shines as people
Gather today for a happy reunion

Clean and shallow ponds
Mandarin ducks play in the water
Red skirts and emerald caps
Devoted married couples like lotus flowers 
Open in pairs, mutual love between spouses

The soft wind blows onto the beautiful flowers
Blowing with much warmth and affection 
Among the people

(Very close but not literal translation; suitable for the English ear.)

Aeroplane Lantern - 1960's  [Image: Mun Chor Seng (c)]

How mooncakes are packaged today

The frills cost a lot more; a box of four cakes will cost S$60 while an elaborate package of ten will cost S$120.

The mooncakes are filled with lotus n yolk, lotus n cranberries,  lotus n macadamia,  lotus n melon seeds, jasmine, black sesame, etc.


Images: Google, Mun Chor Seng and Personal Collection.

1. Chinese greeting.
2. Hal Borland - Nature journalist, poet, writer.
3. Song; Fascination (1932) sung by Nat Cole; composed by Fermo Dante Marchetti and Dick Manning (English version).  It became pop in later years with the movie, Love in the Afternoon (1957) starring Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper.
4.  William Shakespeare; A Midsummer Night's Dream.
YouTube Video: chakrasXXX.
5. Zhou Xuan: In the Full Moon, Flowers Blossom YouTube Video: cdman88.

25th September 2015 Friday.

The haze has been bad and has lasted for more than a week. Many Singaporeans stay indoors. Worse, it has gone out of control and many people in the region are suffering from the problem.  Indonesia, who has been providing us with the unwanted great smoke from the sky, doesn't seem to have done much to stop this sky pollution which has been going on for years!
"While the sun struggles to survive its choking cousin
The moaning moon whispers, "Love thy neighbour..."

People who celebrate the Moon Cake Festival will probably be experiencing a Moan Cake Terrible.

(An obvious reference to a past hazy sky problem. Now the sky is clear.)


JIMMY CHNG said...

Hi Andy,

Apart from moon cakes, I remember that there were mini pig-shaped biscuits that were individually packed in plastic wicker-like cylindrical baskets. As a child, I was drawn to these biscuits, probably due to the novelty of the packaging. Other eats available during this festival include "leng kok" (water caltrop), small yams & pomeloes.


Wow fantastic story must hv done a lot of research congrats. Re d Moon I may hv a story.

CYLIN said...

Hey Andy,

a couple of songs about the moon that we girl guides ( boy scouts too) sang in the 60/70's especially on campfire nights were 'On moonlight bay' followed by 'By the light of the silvery moon'.
What was fun about the latter was the way we went about it. Additional lyrics (those in brackets) were chanted. I'm not sure if this was some local 'invention' but it sure was enjoyable. Truly, those were the days...

'By the light of the silvery moon (not the sun but the moon)
I want to spoon (not the fork but the spoon)
To my honey I'll croon love's tune
Honey moon keep a-shining in June (not in May but in June)
Your silvery beams will bring love's dreams
We'll be cuddling soon
By the silvery moon.'
This was sometimes sung in rounds too, but without the chant.

W.A. said...

I do enjoy reading all the things in your blog. Go back a long way.

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

"Shine on, Harvest Moon" is a popular early-1900's song by married vaudeville team Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth. It was one of a series of Moon-related Tin Pan Alley songs. It became a pop standard, and continues to be performed and recorded even in the 21st century.

I learnt this song as a child while listening to a radio station overseas. It must have been from a US source and in the 1950's. Kept hearing it again and again. Vaudeville then was the craze.

Chinese or English. We all love the moon, especially harvest moon.

Thanks to those constant supporters who wrote in early to comment on this posting.

VICTOR KOO said...

Thanks for a wonderful article, Andy. I used to live a few hundred metres away from Empress Theatre and I could even see the facade of the hotel from the balcony of my 4-storey SIT flat in Cheng Yan Place.

I have blogged about the mooncake festival and the Empress Hotel:

(1) here

and another blog post about making my own lantern using recycled material:

(2) here.


LINDA TAN said...

Those were the days. Not anymore now. Sad to say it has lost its tradition with the younger generation.

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

Thanks Linda, Victor and all FB friends who wrote in. Pity, because the moon has a place in every individual's heart, a symbol of romance and love that spans the globe. Songs have been written by every creed and kind about the moon.


Richard Toh, Randy Lee Keng, Linda Tan, Charles De Silva, Foo Jong Fook for thumbs up.

chakapchakap said...

Many pop songs in Chinese too about Moon Festival or related ones about the great yellow in the sky. One such is Teresa Teng's THE MOON REPRESENTS MY HEART. Bon Jovi has made an attempt to sing it too, not for the festival but to woo the China fans.

FACEBOOK said...

Dick Yip, Tim Leong Lim, Jalani Mohamed thanks for thumbs up.

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

Hi everyone,

One comment from a reader suggests that our youth don't bother with moon cake festivities anymore. Is this true? It is a pity because our counterparts in the West still enjoy Halloween, Guy Fawkes and other cultural celebrations.

What say you?

(This note has been sent to my email friends.)

Malvin Chua said...

Halloween and these western festivities are definitely very appealing to young people these days, but I don't think it can beat the authentic experience of celebrating Mooncake festival - a festival that probably strikes a very nostalgic note with many. :) I have fond memories of going to the neighbourhood park with my parents and neighbours as a child, while carrying paper lanterns.

Besides, there's nothing quite like the taste of mooncake to remind us of our cultural beliefs. So I think Mooncake festival is here to stay for a long time. :)


Dear Andy,

Good Day to you!

Never mind what others think, nobody can please everybody!

Mooncakes and Birthday cakes are celebration and festivals are not religion but celebration when anyone can partake.

Anyway “one swallow does not a summer make”, it’s just a thought for sharing.

I don’t take part in Mooncakes’ event neither but I respect others and enjoy along with friends who does.

Keep in touch my dear friend.

Best Regards.


Hi Andy,

Thanks for the research that you have taken for the above subject.

I would like to share with you my photograph of a child with an
aeroplane lantern taken during the 60's in my house.


You have been sent 1 picture.


Hi Andy

Thanks for the nice write-up on the moon cake festival.

I am quite surprised that your past moon cake celebration still bring back fond memories only shows the sentimental side of you.

The most noticeable difference of today's moon cake is the ex-orbitant sky high price which I think partly due to the justification of its nice packaging as well as the new flavors.

Still I am wondering why most are only selling just moon-cake while missing the many other varieties from the yesteryear.

Meanwhile, I like your choice of Nat King Cole's fascination, just the right song to go with.

Cheers and enjoy the moon cake for now.

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

Thank you Malvin. I certainly hope you are right because the very young usually celebrate these occasions but when they turn into teens the trend changes (alliteration unavoidable :-).

On the other hand, in the West we find youth very much involved in many of their trad cultures which include, Halloween, Guy Fawkes Day, Valentine, Thanksgiving, etc.

But I must agree, nothing quite like the taste of mooncake and tea break at 4pm? (Chinese Tea or English?)

Many thanks to RONNIE SEE, RICKIE CHNG for your comments and greetings. A big thank you to MUN CHOR SENG for the lovely black and white picture. I struggled to find a suitable one for the posting but couldn't get any from the net.

There have been many times when I wanted to give up this blog but great friends like all of you have been helpful and generous with your kind words and photos. I shall try to carry on.

chakapchakap said...

Moon Festival is the seventh holiday themed Angry Birds episode, and available through Angry Birds Seasons. It is also the fifth episode in Season 2011. The setting is China and conceptualised by Rovio. The episode is the first to be held in a certain country.

To catch the large, large China market? Or is it because the Festival is a world known fact.


Zhou Xuan (August 1, 1918 – September 22, 1957), was an iconic Chinese singer and film actress. She had become one of China's seven great singing stars by the 40's. She was the best known, nicknamed "Golden Voice", and had a movie career until 1953. She recorded more than 200 songs and appeared in over 40 films.

She made 43 movies, her favourite, "Street Angel" with two theme songs: "Four Seasons Song" (四季歌) and "The Wandering Songstress", even a current pop.

Other songs were: "When Will You Return?", "Shanghai Nights" (title song), "Yellow Leaves Dancing in Autumn Wind" (黃葉舞秋風).

Her fans love: "Forever Smile" (永遠的微笑), "Hundred Flower Song" (百花歌), "Advice" (叮嚀), "Where Can the Soul Mate be Found" (知音何處尋), and "Picking Betal Nuts" (採檳榔).

anon said...

The Mid-Autumn Festival is a harvest festival celebrated by ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese. The festival is held on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar, on the night of the full moon between early September to early October. It celebrates three fundamental concepts:

Family and friends gatherings, or harvesting crops for the festival.
Thanksgiving, to give thanks for the harvest and harmonious unions.

Praying for conceptual or material satisfaction: babies, spouse, beauty, longevity, or for a good future

Traditions and myths surrounding the festival are formed around these concepts, although traditions have changed due to technology, science, economy, culture, and religion.

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

This year's (2015) Mooncake festivities have been marred by the shameless haze that blew in from distant islands larger than Singapore.

Children especially have not been able to enjoy the outdoor activity of lantern walking and community singing. It is a shame really.

JANE DICK said...

Hello Andy,

Thank you so much for sending me this link. (You can see I am a bit behind at reading my emails ... this is well over a week old now ... ;-)
What a pleasure to read your lovely trip down memory lane. What a lovely festival this is!

As it happens, we had the largest harvest moon I have ever seen this past week ... very spectacular and beautiful. Closest the moon has been to the earth in 60 years if my memory serves me well from all the news coverage it got.

Yesterday my partner Adriano brought home a bag of moon cakes from one of his favourite specialty grocers.

It is Indian summer here now. The nights are cool, and there is a crispness in the air, but the days are warm and bright.

anonymous said...

I've just read that an ordinary-sized red bean moon cake has as many calories as a plate of char-kway-teow.

So far I'v eaten three moon cakes in 3 days. That's a lot of calories.