Yesterday was Mid-Autumn Festival, one of the most important and beloved Chinese holidays (they’re all beloved by me, naturally, but the locals certainly seem to get more excited about this one than, say, Labour Day or Buddha’s Birthday). On the eve of any public holiday I can be seen skipping home from work, junky tat lantern with appropriate inscription in hand, thoughts full of the impending sleep-in. The locals are usually a little cooler. But by 3pm yesterday shiny skyscrapers all over the island were disgorging a mass of commemorative-mooncake-carrying drones onto the MTR, where excited nattering filled the usually peaceful carriages. I waited 45 minutes for my minibus from Hang Hau to Sai Kung – unheard of! (And unappreciated, since it’s still 30+ degrees with max humidity, despite it being literally the very apex of Autumn.)
You might remember my insightful interpretation of the Tuen Ng Festival. Having proven so adept at butchering cultural fables, I see no reason to stop now. So, with the help of Wikipedia, confusing stories cobbled together from Rufus’s school playground, and squinting at the Chinese characters on the top of a few mooncakes, I now present the legend behind Mid-Autumn Festival – Houyi and Chang’e, the Moon Goddess of Immortality.
[Actually from here on in it becomes so unrealistic, even when the opening gambit contains people working in the Emperor of Heaven, that I’ve copied it verbatim.]
At that time, there were 10 suns, in the form of three-legged birds [what? that doesn’t even make sense!] residing in a mulberry tree in the eastern sea. Each day one of the sun birds would have to travel around the world on a carriage, driven by Xihe, the mother of the suns. One day, all 10 of the suns circled together, causing the Earth to burn. Emperor Yao, the Emperor of China, commanded Houyi to use his archery skill to shoot down all but one of the suns. Upon completion of his task, the Emperor rewarded Houyi with a pill that granted eternal life. Emperor Yao advised Houyi not to swallow the pill immediately but instead to prepare himself by praying and fasting for a year before taking it. Houyi took the pill home and hid it under a rafter. One day, Houyi was summoned away again by Emperor Yao. During her husband’s absence, Chang’e noticed a white beam of light beckoning from the rafters, and discovered the pill. Chang’e swallowed it and immediately found that she could fly. Houyi returned home, realizing what had happened he began to reprimand his wife. Chang’e escaped by flying out the window into the sky.
Houyi pursued her halfway across the heavens but was forced to return to Earth because of strong winds. Chang’e reached the moon, where she coughed up part of the pill. Chang’e commanded the hare that lived on the moon to make another pill. Chang’e would then be able to return to Earth and her husband.
The legend states that the hare is still pounding herbs, trying to make the pill. Houyi built himself a palace in the sun, representing “Yang” (the male principle), in contrast to Chang’e’s home on the moon which represents “Yin” (the female principle). Once a year, on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, Houyi visits his wife. That is the reason why the moon is very full and beautiful on that night.
WHAT THE WHAT?
Another version involves Chang’e accidentally swallowing the entire pill and floating off into the sky “because of the overdose”. Still another version involves Houyi being made king for killing nine of the suns, but becoming a despot who learned he could make an immortality pill by grinding up the body of a different adolescent boy every night for 100 nights. Chang’e stole the pill and swallowed it to prevent her husband’s tyrannical rule from lasting forever.
Lastly, in an unexpected touch of possible realism, the Mid-Autumn Festival may commemorate an uprising in China against the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty in the 14th century. Group gatherings were banned, so it was impossible to plan for a rebellion. Noting that Mongols did not eat mooncakes, a Chinese advisor came up with a scheme of distributing thousands of mooncakes to Chinese residents to bless the longevity of the Mongol emperor. Inside each case was a piece of paper with the message: “Kill the Mongols on the 15th day of the 8th month”. On said night, the rebels successfully attacked and overthrew the government.
Clearly the person who came up with these stories (at least the first couple) had been enjoying some special white pills of a different kind, no?
So anyway, I’m not sure what we’re particularly celebrating, but the star of the celebration is the pungent delicacy known as the mooncake. This is a hefty snack y’all. It’s filled with lotus seed paste, nuts, lard, and the yolk of a salted duck egg, and apparently each one comes in at about 1200 calories. It looks like this, is about as heavy to lift as it is on the palate and later the hips, and tastes exactly how you would imagine.
The characters for “longevity” and “harmony” are commonly baked onto the top casing, along with pictures of the rabbit, flowers or vines. Generally you take a slice of mooncake with Chinese tea on Mid-Autumn night, sitting outside admiring the moon. Hongkongers gather outside their houses (and descend on the towns) with lanterns of all descriptions – rabbits, fish, Angry Birds. Inflatable singing Hello Kitty lanterns are popular. Dogs wear glowsticks tied to their collars; people hang lanterns from their shops.
This year Rufus chose an on-point golden strawberry:
We met up with dad in Sai Kung but a combination of first-weeks-of-school-fatigue, over-excitement, and an uneven distribution of red/green/pink/yellow glowsticks in the container we purchased resulted in the kids crying and brawling all the way down the promenade. We made our way prematurely back to our car soon after dusk to discover a HK$350 parking ticket. SO THAT WAS IN THE SPIRIT.
But guess what? After putting the kids to bed, something happened that really was in the spirit of the festival – whatever that might be (fucked if I can work it out…suns in the shape of three-legged birds, an illicit pill manufacturary on the moon staffed by a domestic pest…? I’m so confused!)
MaryJane and I were heading down to Sai Kung for a late-night constitutional (she at the athletics track, me at the swimming pool). On our way out the door, we heard the shy voice of Indama (the helper from next door) from through the hedge between our houses. She was trying to pass slices of mooncake through the foliage, and inviting us to come and join them in their front yard. She has a surprising girlish voice and besides that was speaking mostly in Bahasa, but we did hear “friend” (what she calls MaryJane), “madam” (what she calls me) and “please come” in English. I could see Mrs Kong, her employer, sitting at her outdoor table, along with Amelia, the Filippina helper of the couple who live above Mrs Kong. They had prepared all sorts of food and drinks. Skinny Bob, her dog, was circling around excitedly, despite the Elizabethan collar he is currently sporting after getting in a fight with another dog.
I was a little wary, what with our previous history and also my awkward attempts to “help” Indama, which while “noble” is both culturally inappropriate and personally insulting to Mrs Kong. Recently there has been upheaval in the village with the passing away of lovely Mr Kong on the other side (this Mrs Kong’s brother-in-law), and then Mrs Kong herself being in hospital for five days. In that time, Bobby got in his dog fight. He had huge rip wounds on his face, particularly between his eyes, that went right down to the bone and after we realised Mrs Kong was in hospital and Indama was on her own, we offered to take Bobby to the vet. This was vetoed by Mrs Kong from the hospital. There was a long-running consultative process between about 10 of our neighbours and I have to admit, though it was with entirely good intentions, I was the instigator…and this again causes Mrs Kong to lose face.
Ultimately we had to leave Bobby to be looked after as best as Indama could, and in the past few days since Mrs Kong has been home we’ve noticed that Bobby is at least wearing the collar and having antiseptic cream applied. I’ve been feeling happy about that, but worried about offending Mrs Kong and upsetting the village balance like some gweipo upstart barging around the village trying to fix everything, which I do have an inappropriate tendency to do.
So when Indama asked us in last night, I did feel uncertain. However, Mrs Kong seemed thrilled for us to be there. She has a round stone outdoor table with matching stools that look like big 10-pin bowling pins. Indama rolled two over, with great difficulty, for MaryJane and I, and there we sat – two Filippina helpers, one Indonesian one, Mrs Kong, and myself. Four languages between us, and the biggest moon of the year overhead.
On the table was a tin tray containing bananas, purple grapes, and fresh pomelo, along with dense mooncakes cut into wedges. Indama poured Chinese tea into crystal glasses for us, and Mrs Kong cut up thick segments of dragonfruit.
She was working quickly with her small knife, pressing food on us and talking incessantly in Cantonese. She has a small amount of English but it all disappeared once she set off on a topic which animated her. Indama’s English (completely non-existent a few months ago) has improved somewhat, and my Cantonese has also improved in that time. So between the three of us, we were able to participate in what could almost be considered a proper conversation. MaryJane and Amelia obviously speak English and Tagalog, and also – this sounds racist or classist, but it’s just true – somehow communicate with Indama through some sort of universal “helper sign language” that put us all on the same page. Eventually.
I can’t vouch for the full accuracy of what I’m attributing to this odd collection of participants, but here’s some of the things we talked about:
-Going swimming. I always fail at saying the word for “swimming pool” (particularly hard tone), so I got around this by smoothly reaching into my swimming bag and donning my goggles. Mrs Kong laughed and said she also liked swimming, but her husband hadn’t let her swim for the 50 years they were married. She also used to cha-cha.
-Mrs Kong’s four children. Two sons, two daughters. Two in the UK, two in America. She has nine grandchildren.
-Indama had received a letter that day from her husband (working as a houseboy in the Middle East) and was very happy.
-Indama and MaryJane are engaged in competitive dieting, and sometimes late at night they run with Basil and Bobby to Sai Kung, apparently “talking” all the way. This week, Indama lost 1kg. She was very happy about this too.
-Amelia’s employers had invited her to Sai Kung but she wanted to stay home and finish the ironing, and now she was worried she wouldn’t get it done but didn’t want to offend Mrs Kong by leaving the party.
-Mrs Kong’s deceased husband, and what a nice man he was. I only met him twice but that did clearly stand out about him. I THINK she said his ashes are interred under the big fishtank in the front yard. I also THINK she said he used to run the local taxi service. This was a complicated part of the conversation and she kept stroking “1,1,9,9” on my open palm with her finger, which is the phone number for one of the taxi services, and doing driving motions…but she was also talking about dollars, so maybe I totally missed the point. Maybe one day her husband bought a car for $190 or something. I dunno.
-The moon. This was a good part of the conversation for me because there was lots of easy words like tonight, tomorrow, yesterday, last night, tomorrow night, big, and moon. I was actually making relevant contributions that didn’t sound like the fumbling dissertation of a slightly back-of-the-pack 3-year-old.
At one point Mrs Kong paused in her dragonfruit hacking to wave her knife around vaguely in the direction of her house, our house, and a few other houses nearby. “We’re all friends”, she said, “everybody friends”, plus some more in Cantonese. “Neighbour”, said Indama, “Pun-yau (friend) and neighbour.” Both of them with big genuine smiles on their faces.
It was an incredible feeling. MaryJane and I pushed off shortly afterwards (the pool was nearly closed, and no amount of sentimental bridge-building was gonna stop me from missing my laps), but what an unlikely and fantastic moment. Indama thanked us so profusely for dropping in, and was so bright, I now understand I can “do more” for her by embracing Mrs Kong and indeed being her pun-yau, rather than trying to do things my way. MaryJane and I glided down to the car on the warm breeze, the moonshine, and our united ability to avoid ingesting any mooncake.
There were only two swimmers at the pool, everyone else obviously engaged in lanternry elsewhere. With 18 lifeguards supervising every stroke, and the other guy churning up and down the fast lane, I chose the middle of the pool for my very slow laps. I turned onto my back for the last four. With my ears underwater and that stupendous moon overhead, and the night’s odd events replaying in my mind, I almost started to believe in the rabbit.