As my husband walked home from work through Hong Kong Park a few weeks ago, it was aglow with beautiful lanterns. Then moon cakes began to appear in shop windows. The Mid Autumn Festival was approaching and we set out to learn about it so we could join the party.
As in many countries, the Mid-Autumn festival originated as a celebration of the harvest. Since the early Tang Dynasty (618 to 907), families have gathered to commemorate the holiday and give thanks for bountiful crops, much like Thanksgiving in America.
From late August until mid-September we saw elaborate lantern displays everywhere. Businesses hung them in their entries and the parks were beautifully illuminated. The evening of the festival, we went to Victoria Park to participate in the celebration. The park was crowded with families who had all come to see the park festooned with lights in the island’s biggest display of glowing lanterns. The festivities also included cultural events, arts and crafts, games, culminating with a visit from the Fire Dragon.
A couple of very nice student ambassadors approached my friend and me offering to explain the customs of the festival. They taught us to say, “Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!” in Cantonese and then took a video of us saying it. Since we have no way of knowing whether or not we had just said we had a communicable disease or planned to overthrow the government, I’ll let you know if either the CDC or CIA shows up to question me.
Fire Dragon Dance
About 100 years ago, on the eve of the Mid-Autumn Festival, the village of Tai Hang was devastated by a typhoon and a plague and threatened by a giant python. A fortune teller told the villagers that the only way to end the plague was to construct a massive fire dragon out of straw and incense sticks and to ignite firecrackers. They complied and for three days the fire dragon danced through the village streets. The plague abated and ever since then the fire dragon dance has been an important part of the Mid-Autumn Festival.
We joined the throngs of people lining the streets near the temple to see the spectacle. Before we could see anything, we heard thunderous drums announcing the imminent parade. The Tai Hang fire dragon is over 200 feet long, bears around 70,000 incense sticks and is manned by 300 handlers. At the start of the parade, a group of children processed carrying lanterns. Then came the massive, straw dragon accompanied by large drums and gongs. All this was followed by a pipe and drum band, a throwback to Hong Kong’s days as a British Territory. The crowds cheered and a thick cloud of smoke and incense permeated the air. The booming drums, the dense blanket of incense and the frenzy of the crowd made for quite a memorable experience.
Any discussion of Mid-Autumn festival must include moon cakes. A traditional moon cake consists of a round crust filled with lotus paste and contains two salted duck egg yolks. (An intact egg yolk in the middle of a pastry is not nearly as yummy as it sounds.) The top is embossed with symbols for harmony and longevity. It is said that the moon cake was devised as a way of sending encoded messages in an effort to overthrow Mongol rule. Modern bakers have concocted moon cakes in a vast array of flavors resembling customary moon cakes only in form.
I’m sorry to see it all come to an end but we were fortunate to be able to see the spectacle of Mid-Autumn Festival. I’m told that here in Hong Kong there are lots of festivals so I’m really looking forward to the next one.