The second grandest festival in China after the Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival in Singapore is widely celebrated among the Chinese community.
Walk through Chinatown this time of the year, and you can already see this festival coming to life. It is called the mid-autumn festival as the 15th day falls in the middle of the month, and the 8th lunar month is in the middle of autumn, when the moon is at its fullest and brightest. In food-obsessed Singapore, people also refer to the Mid-Autumn festival as the mooncake festival, after the popular baked pastry that is commonly eaten during the festival. Here’s the low-down on how this annual festival came to be, why it’s important, and why you don’t want to miss out.
From tyrannical despot to a beloved festive tradition
Despite the cheerful festivities that you see today, its roots has a grim side. There are several theories of the tales connected to the mid-Autumn festival, but one of the most popular is the story connected to Chang-E, and her husband Hou Yi. Hou Yi was a member of the imperial guards of the Emperor and saved the earth from scorching when he shot down 9 of the 10 suns circling the planet. As a reward, he was given the elixir of life but fame got the better of him and he soon became a tyrant. In order to protect humankind, his wife Chang-E drank the elixir of life and floated to the moon to become the Moon Goddess. To remember and pray for her, Hou Yi and the common folk started to worship the moon with offerings. Growing up, kids would be told that Chang-E is still living on the moon. And on the night of the mid-autumn festival, one would be able to see the shape of Chang-E on the moon.
A time of family get-together
In Chinese tradition and culture, a full moon symbolises completeness and is associated with family reunion. Thus, the Mid-Autumn festival is a popular time for family gatherings where the family will feast on traditional festive mid-autumn foods and lantern-carrying. Many organisations will also plan for traditional Chinese performances like Chinese dance, Chinese opera, cross-talk and puppetry.
Also, another essential part of the Festival is an activity called “cai deng mi” (猜灯谜) which can also be translated to “Lantern riddle guessing”. Riddles are written on colourful strips and hung from the lantern.
Here’s one example :
Question : Take off my skin – I won’t cry, but you will! What am I?
Anyone got the answer?
The truth is that the novelty of this game isn’t about getting the amount of right answers. Rather, it is the idea about having some fun times and guesswork among family and friends.
Sweet lovers alert
Singapore is spoiled for choice when it comes to mooncakes. The mooncakes that are commonly sold in the city have origins in Southern China and they reflect the immigration patterns of the early Chinese settlers to Singapore. Mooncakes come in different styles and the most common versions that you will find in Singapore are :
- Cantonese mooncakes : Originating from Guangzhou and Guangxi provinces, it is also the most popular and widespread around the world. The most common versions that you find are the fillings with the lotus seed/sesame seed paste with/without egg yolks.
- Hong Kong mooncakes : Hong Kong is famous for its snow skin mooncakes, also called ice-skin mooncakes. With a soft and chewy skin that resembles mochi, this no-baked treat have a variety of inventive fillings eg. green tea, fruits, cheeses etc. In Singapore, you can find this treat being filled with durians, champagne and uniquely local sweets flavours like ondeh ondeh, bandung etc.
- Chaoshan (Teochew) mooncakes : Flaky, heavy and buttery which makes them stand out from the Cantonese-style mooncakes. Typical fillings include taro (my personal favourite!) and red bean paste.
- Hainan mooncakes : A uniquely Singaporean creation not found in China! It is believed to be created by the local Hainanese community as they could not afford the relatively expensive Cantonese mooncakes. They are known as “su yan bing” which means flaky, salty biscuit or “salt and pepper mooncakes”. This pastry is made from 13 ingredients, including tangerine peels, fried shallots, sesame seeds and melon seeds. This gives it a very unique blend of flavours unlike any other, unami, sweet, tangy and slighty spicy.
Walk around the city, and you’ll see lots of mooncakes being sold. One of the biggest concentration is in the Takashimaya mall, where you’ll see over 60 vendors selling mooncakes, ranging from the traditional to the contemporary. Durian mooncakes anyone?
The vendors range from traditional bakeries to the high end hotels. Think of it as a one-stop place to see all the novel flavours and creative (and sometimes ostentatious) packaging. It’s a great place to check out what the new and novel flavours, the craziest packaging and also for price comparison. And pssss….it’s also a great place to score some samples.
That’s because mooncakes don’t come cheap. A box of mooncakes this year cost anything between S$60-$80. Why are they so expensive if the raw materials don’t cost a lot (flour, cooking oil, sugar, lotus seed paste etc)? It is more because companies spend a lot to create unique packaging to differentiate themselves from competition. As gifting mooncakes is common among families, friends and business associates, beautiful packaging (and the corresponding cost of box of mooncakes) is equated with how much you value the relationship. If you are buying mooncakes for yourself, buy them closer to the date of the festival. That’s because some shops will start giving discounts to incentive people to buy as there won’t be much demand after the festival (think christmas candies post-Xmas).
Hopefully, this post has given you some insights to this East Asian harvest festival celebrated by Chinese communities around the world . If you are wondering what to do/where to go during the Mid-Autumn festival in Singapore, check out some recommendations.