With Mid-Autumn Festival just around the corner on October 4, we take a look at the role of the mooncake in Chinese history and up to the present day.
The mooncake has always been more about politics than food. Synonymous with the Mid-Autumn Festival, the densely-packed baked delicacy is a traditional way of establishing and maintaining “guanxi” – a Chinese phrase which literally means “relationships”. But it turns out this naughty little cake has a lot to answer for – from shady beginnings tainted with corruption to a full-blown waste crisis in our city, we take a look at the sordid history of the mooncake.
Many Moons Ago…
As folklore goes, a Ming rebellion used mooncakes to spirit around secret messages in a plot to overthrow their Yuan Dynasty rulers (1200 A.D.- 1368 A.D). Slips of paper baked into the cakes were allegedly used to prompt rebels to rise up on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, which is when the Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated to this day. Today, an entirely different kind of secret is being stuffed into the pastries, a gift exchanged by Chinese families and businesses during the Mid-Autumn Festival. But this seemingly harmless custom isn’t always as innocent as it sounds.
According to media reports, luxury goods, precious metals, crystals, and plain old wads of cash were stuffed into the cakes or slipped in their elaborate boxes, particularly in mainland China. The issue became serious enough to attract the attention of global law firms. Baker & McKenzie issued a 2012 corporate compliance guide called When is a Mooncake a Bribe?. The following year, Norton Rose Fulbright followed up with Mooncakes – guanxi or graft?. In fact, mooncakes have been on the radar of Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption since 2009, when a construction company director was jailed for two months for trying to bribe the police with 15 boxes of mooncakes (and to think we can’t even shift one!). The police returned them.
A 2013 RTHK report on a practice called “mooncake gambling” in Xiamen, Fujian Province, provided some background, “An influential official, or a businessman, receiving a box of mooncakes might often find something else inside – such as a high-end watch or gold coins.” Some buyers didn’t even bother hiding the gold. The South China Morning Post reported in 2012 that a China Merchants Bank branch in Shanghai sold thousands of solid-gold mooncakes at 16,000 yuan each.
Finally, Beijing cracked down. In 2013, they banned officials from using public funds for the purchase of mooncakes. The following year, they encouraged mooncake tattle-tales, with a “special tip-off window” on a government website for netizens to report the “squandering of taxpayers’ money by civil servants”. China Daily promised that mooncake-buying violators would be “named and shamed”.
Thankfully in Hong Kong, mooncake corruption is not as prominent a problem, and – outside of politics – they are a genuinely important part of local culture. Symbolising completeness, unity, and the fullness of the moon, these round shaped cakes are meant to be shared to bring people together, be it friends, families, or colleagues. They are not to be devoured whole by one person, and even the most enthusiastic mooncake muncher must share their spoils as a part of the Mid-Autumn spirit. Some especially auspicious participants say the cake should be cut into eight, the Chinese lucky number.
The bakeries are certainly quick to jump on the mooncake bandwagon too, raking in over a third of their annual revenue in a single month! Walk into any supermarket in the lead up to the festival and you’ll be bombarded with various flavours of mooncakes – from the traditional kind (filled with red beans or lotus seed paste) to the snowy sort (modernised and made fun to attract the younger crowd). There are even the “healthy” variety (or rather, less unhealthy) which are low fat, fat free, high fiber and low sugar, to cater to the ever health-conscious consumers.
And, of course, there are the very high-end ones – handmade by chefs at Michelin-starred Chinese restaurants at five-star hotels – which sell out weeks in advance. Among the most infamous of them all are the Mini Egg Custard Mooncakes made by the Peninsula Hotel (pictured above), which are already sold out and said to sell on the black market for double their retail price.
Mad about Mooncakes? Apparently Not.
Despite the fact that mooncakes are still considered to be a delicacy, it turns out that not everyone actually enjoys eating them. A survey conducted last year by environmental group Green Power revealed that a whopping 60 per cent of Hong Kongers dislike receiving them as gifts, while 12 per cent are strongly against receiving them. As a result, Hong Kongers threw out more than one million mooncakes in 2016.
So why do we keep on giving them? Ironically, the same survey suggests that while most people don’t like to receive mooncakes, they don’t have a problem giving them away as gifts in the name of “tradition”. The main cause of the mooncake wastage is receiving too many as gifts – far more than can possibly be consumed. In fact, few younger consumers will eat more than their obligatory slice of mooncake, even though new-fangled flavors like ice cream or chocolate have gained in popularity. The second reason is that not all can be eaten before the due date. So until we find a new way to show our affection around this time of year, it seems the cycle will continue.
The Gift that Keeps on Giving
They say what goes around comes around – and this certainly applies to mooncakes. Luckily in Hong Kong, nobody is uptight about the wide practice of ‘re-giving’ boxes of them, and many local support staff would be more than happy to have your extra boxes to give to their families, so there’s always a bright side. This is an accepted practice of the ‘Mooncake Economy’ leading up to the holiday date – in fact, people might half expect you to give away the box they’ve just given you!
If, however, you are really bombarded with mooncakes destined for the rubbish bin, the Environmental Protection Department has a list of charities that will happily take non-perishable ones off your hands. Among these is The Salvation Army Hong Kong, which in 2014, collected nearly 30,000 mooncakes and gave them to the homeless in Yau Ma Tei.
Hong Kong based non-profit A Drop of Life, also collected 5,888 mooncakes and received another 1,500 from Maxim. They were all delivered to the elderly, low-income families, and homeless people in Tuen Mun, Sham Shui Po, Shui Wai, and Sheung Shui among others.
So as you gear up for the most magical time of the Hong Kong year, and look forward to strolling under the gaze of the moonlight and watching the Fire Dragon dance his way through the crowds, you might want to reconsider reaching for that box of mooncakes in your local Wellcome. Remember, your nearest and dearest could be part of that 60 per cent!