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Sep 5, 2019

The Moon Festival

Stall at Smith Street in Chinatown selling moon cakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Cake Festival. The Chinese festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month, the night at which the moon is believed to be the roundest and brightest. The Mid-Autumn Festival dates back to the reign of Emperor Tai Tsung of the Sung Dynasty (AD 976-995), but it was only in the Ts'ing period when China was under Manchurian rule (1644-1911) that moon cakes were consumed in celebration. Shaped like the moon, the sweet pastry is traditionally filled with a few types of paste -- lotus, black-bean, yellow-bean, and "golden trotter" (mixture of nuts and sweetened paste of orange peel and ham) -- and often includes a preserved duck's egg yolk. During the festive season, moon cakes are given as gifts and put at the altar as offerings to deities, ancestors and the moon.  Date:  12/09/1983.

The Moon Festival, a tradition that is still going strong in Singapore.

Traditions die hard, and the Eighth Moon Festival - also known as the Mid-Autumn or Moon-cake Festival - is no different.

Chinese in Singapore still continue to celebrate the event, one of the most colourful in the Chinese calendar, although the majority do not really understand its significance, especially among the younger generation.

It climaxed two weeks of activities which saw thousands of dollars worth of moon-cakes bought, exchanged and consumed.

Chinatown, just across the People's Park Complex, is usually the centre of activity before the festival.  Here shops and roadside stalls are well-stocked with traditional items like pomeloes, tea leaves and dust, and, of course, moon-cakes in different variety.

However, with the threat of urban renewal, this area is slowly losing its popularity as THE place for festival shopping.

Ask any of the Chinatown stall-holders and he will readily tell you that business has not been as good as in the previous years.

One of the reasons is that the younger generation are not so keen in celebrating the festival.

"Unlike the older people, the younger ones will only buy a few pieces of moon-cake for the family and one or two lanterns for their children," said one of the shop-keepers who has been years in the business.

"This is bad because if this trend continues, a time will come when no one will celebrate the festival."

There are however, clubs here whch still celebrate the occasion quite elaborately.  The China Society, for instance, holds and annual Mooncake Party for its members and guests, and among its activities are cultural shows and talks on the festival.

For the older folk, festival day means time for exchange of gifts among friends and relatives with mooncakes and caged "piglets" topping the lsit.

It is also time to pray to the Moon Goddess - despite the American intrusion on the planet.

Although no one can say for certain how long this tradition will last in Singapore, most people agree that the festival helps to bring on added touch of colour to the lives of the people here.

[Source:  New Nation, 23 September 1972.  By Jenny Lee].

Madam Lan Lee Ying and her two-year-old granddaughter Annabell Song, in Chinatown to buy lanterns.  Tonight is the celebration of the Mid-Autumn festival which is also known as the lantern or mooncake festival.  Picture by Lau Fook Kong.

The lady in the moon

By Diane Lim [Source:  The Straits Times, 27 September 1987].

When the moon rises high in the sky on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, round and bright as a big lantern, little ones might well wonder about the dim shapes they see on its surface.

If they won't be satisfied with the standard modern explanation that these are shadows made by the mountains and craters on the moon, perhaps the traditional myths may go sown better with mooncakes and Chinese tea.

The central figure in the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations is Chang E, the Lady in the Moon.  Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) mythologies say that she was the beautiful wife of Hou Yi, a skilful archer who saved the earth from drought during the Xia dynasty (circa 2,000 BC) by shooting nine suns from the sky, leaving one we see today.

There are several different accounts of how Chang E got in the moon.  In the most commonly-told version, Hou Yi was rewarded for his feat by being made ruler of the people he had saved.

Unfortuantely, he proved to be tyrannical.  He sent emissaries to Xi Wang Mu, Queen of the Western Paradise, to procure an elixir of immortality.

Chang E foresaw unending misery for her husband's subjects should he become immortal.  So, filled with pity and concern for them, she drank the elixir and fled to the moon to escape Hou Yi's wrath.

Her heroic sacrifice is remembered by those who pray to her as the Goddess of the Moon and symbol of beauty, wisdom and virtue.

In another version of the story, the 10 suns in the sky were the sons of Jade Emperor, supreme ruler of the heavens.  He had instructed them to take turns shining in the sky so as to warm the earth, but they had disobediently appeared together, causing drought and destruction.

Hou Yi was a heavenly emissary sent to reason with them.  Failing to persuade them with words, he shot down all but one.  Angered by this, the Jade Emperor barred Hou Yi and his fairy wife Chang E, who had come to earth with him, from returning to heaven.

Chang E was unhappy with her life among mortals and nagged Hou Yi to find a way for them to regain immortality.  After many difficulties, Hou Yi obtained a medicine from Xi Yang Mu, who gave him enough of it for two.

He returned to Chang E rejoicing and told her about it, but hid it in the roof of the house when he went out again.  Chang E discovered the medicine in his absence.  She had just taken it down when she heared Hou Yi returning.

In confusion, she swallowed it all.  She started to feel lighter and lighter and began to float upwards as her husband watched helplessly.  Finally, she reached the moon, unable to go further, since she was still not permitted to enter heaven.

On a clear night, look at the moon, especially when it is full.  The shadows on the moon may also recall the silhouette of a rabbit.

One story about it goes thus:  A fox, a monkey and a rabbit lived together harmoniously, sharing their food and work.  One day, a holy man came begging for food and shelter.  The three animals welcomed him into their cave.  The fox brought him a carp, and the monkey gave him freshly picked fruit.

Full of sadness that it had nothing better to offer, the rabbit jumped into the fire and roasted itself to provide meat for the old man.

As it turned out, the honly man was the Lord Buddha in disguise and, to reward the rabbit's generosity, he placed its half-burnt carcass on the moon to shine as an example for all eternity....

And what about the mooncakes, their golden brown recalling the gleam of the harvest moon?

It is said that Zhu Yuan Zhang overthrew the Yuan dynasty (1279 AD - 1368 AD) and freed the Chinese from Mongol domination with their help.  On the advice of his lieutenant, Liu Bo Wen, mooncakes were circulated among the people as the festival approached.

Celebrating the festival provided an excuse for Chinese families to gather, as the Mongol soldiers otherwise strictly controlled their movements.

Since ownership of sharp weapons was restricted and 10 families had to share one knife, the need to cut the mooncakes ensured that the people would have arms at the ready when they received the call to rise against the Mongols - by means of notes hidden in the mooncakes.

The rebellion was successful, and resulted in the founding of the Ming dynasty (1369-1644).

Sadly, the authenticity of this well-know story is disputed.  The Mid-Autumn Festival was indeed celebrated from the Song dynasty (AD960-1279) onwards, but mooncakes were not mentioned as being part of the festival until the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), according to C.S. Wong, the late Penang-based expert on Chinese matters.

However, Tan Sri Lee is of the view that the mooncakes do have a long history and may well have existed at the time of the anti-Mongol revolt.

Information published by the Hong Kong Tourist Association supports what Tan Sri Lee said, claiming that mooncakes existed as far back as the Tang dynasty, though their origin is unknown.

    Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations in Chinatown

Sales of mooncakes at Chinatown in the 1950s.

Sales of lanterns at Chinatown in the 1950s.

Celebration of Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festivals in 2003

President SR Nathan, Guest of Honour for official opening and light-up ceremony of the Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival at New Bridge Road on 31 August, 2003.

My personal Chinatown Mid-Autumn Blogs

In 2013, I had the pleasure and privilege to share my blog and personal memories of Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival in 2013 here .

Please watch the YouTube video here .

The still photos captured from the Mediacorp Channel 8 screened on Frontline on 20 September, 2013 below:



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