In the northern hemisphere it’s Harvest Moon and in Hong Kong that means Mid-Autumn Festival, one of my favourite times of year growing up.
Each of Hong Kong’s festivals has its own character but most are marked with noise and colour. The Moon Festival, by its very simplicity, was different.
All you had to do was to take a paper lantern out for a walk with your family and friends and look at the moon. And, of course, eat.
Our favoured route was close to home, along Bowen Road in the Mid-Levels. It provided a winding walk largely free of traffic, marked with two pagodas and frequent views out across the harbour to the nine hills of Kowloon.
The earliest lanterns of my childhood are still on sale in Chinatowns around the world – simple, concertina-like collapsible affairs with a wire at the base to hold the traditional red candle.
We would set off with our friends and neighbours and join the throng of strolling families, clutching our lanterns and waiting for the inevitable moment when they stopped glowing and started blazing.
The road was quickly littered with paper lanterns in varying stages of conflagration. Smart parents packed spares.
Everywhere I looked, the hillsides were dotted with the lights of thousands of lanterns. The whole city was out and about for the simple purpose of admiring the moon.
Over the years the lanterns grew more sophisticated and the shopping trip to prepare for Mid-Autumn Festival became more complicated as style had to be weighed carefully against function.
For example, once I went for a sheep on wheels. It looked great in the shop but was a disaster on the road. The candle fell against the lantern at the first bump, with predictable result.
My favourite lantern was a dragon with three distinct parts, the candle in its body while head and tail waved independently.
Alas, a design flaw, unnoticed until the Big Night, meant it almost instantly became too hot to hold and it was quickly added to the burning roadside detritus.
These days I understand the lanterns are largely made of plastic while batteries and glow sticks have replaced candles.
They are not the only things about the Mid-Autumn Festival to have moved with the times.
The mooncake, an essential ingredient of the celebration, has been updated for modern tastes, even available in chocolate flavours. And, in a cheeky twist, there are even mooning mooncakes this year.
It’s inevitable that traditions evolve and change over time and I don’t begrudge modern Hong Kong children their Angry Birds lanterns, but I was sad to read that some no longer recognise a traditional mooncake when they see one.
Hong Kong’s Time Out recently celebrated three different aspects of the Moon Festival and the people who are keeping them alive in these modern times.
Lai Yuen Foon has been making traditional mooncakes for nearly 40 years and he said, “Sometimes kids point at mooncakes and say, ‘hey, that’s cute, what is it?’
“So that’s when we explain the whole Mid-Autumn Festival story to them.”
The festival has its origins in the romantic legend of the mighty hero Hou Yi who lost his beautiful wife Chang E when she became imprisoned in the moon.
The details vary of how she got there but the point is that at Mid-Autumn, when the moon is at its brightest and fullest, she can be seen and that is when Hou Yi lays out her favourite foods and sits, yearning, in the moonlight.
Why the Harvest Moon is the biggest and brightest of the night sky is beautifully explained by Deborah Byrd at Earth Sky.
And for a better description of Mid-Autumn Festival traditions than my humble offering, please visit the Scissors Sharpener’s Daughter for her recollections of growing up in 188 Hugh Low Street, Ipoh, where celebrations were similar.
Wherever you are in the northern hemisphere, I hope you enjoy the beauty of the Harvest Moon and perhaps win a smile from Chang E, the Lady who lives there.