Chinese in the US and UK celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival with aplomb, report Kelly Chung Dawson in New York and Zhang Chunyan in London.
Mid-Autumn Festival is a special occasion for overseas Chinese, including those in the United States and the United Kingdom, to keep their heritage alive and introduce the younger generation to a celebration that can be traced back to the Xia Dynasty (21st-16th century BC).
So what is the origin of the festival and how do overseas Chinese celebrate it? The Western Han philosophical classic, Huainanzi, attributes the origins of Mid-Autumn Festival to the legend of the star-crossed lovers Hou Yi and Chang E. After Hou, the imperial archer, was awarded the elixir of immortality for shooting down nine of the 10 wayward suns, his beautiful wife, Chang, took the potion and floated to the moon. She, the moon goddess, still lives there and is reunited with her husband, god of the sun, only on nights with a full moon.
Among the many folk tales surrounding the festival is one of rebellion and intrigue. Legend has it that rebels disseminated details of a coup against the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) by putting them in mooncakes. On the night of what was the Moon Festival, the rebels attacked Beijing and overthrew the Mongol rulers, establishing the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar (which falls on Sept 30 this year), Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the several holidays that the Chinese celebrate with their families.
But do the Chinese in China and abroad celebrate it the same way?
In major US cities such as New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco, Chinese communities celebrate the festival with folk music, dance performances, traditional Chinese cuisine and, of course, the ubiquitous mooncake.
In the UK, since it is not possible for many Chinese to celebrate the festival with their families, they do the next best thing - have a party, with mooncakes, of course.
Containing countless varieties of fillings that include bean paste, Chinese dates, lotus seed paste and the classic egg yolk, boxes of moon cakes are given as presents in a time-honored tradition.
"The festival symbolizes family unity," said Cathy Hung, executive director of the New York Chinese Culture Center, which is holding Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations in Queens, New York, this year. "It's an opportunity for families to come together and educate the next generation (about Chinese traditions). It's incredibly important to preserve traditions, especially in a distant land. You keep your heritage alive by sharing with your children what you experienced as a child."
For members of the younger generation, the festival is a way of reclaiming their Chinese identity, said Xu Lin, youth organizer for Asian Americans United, or AAU, which will organize a celebration in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. "There is a shared identity among Asian-Americans," Xu said, "and throughout history people in our position have formed strong communities and used culture to build bonds and fight against discrimination. Festivals like these are very important to us."
The AAU program will feature more than 100 volunteers, Xu said. More than 5,000 people have attended the celebrations every year in the past, as the festival is also an opportunity for different generations to interact.
"It helps build inter-generational dialogue, through which young people can learn about traditions from their elders," Xu said. And though, as in every community, there is a "generation gap" among Chinese, "people from different parts of the city and from different backgrounds can come together at an event like this".
Cynthia Yee, entertainment coordinator for San Francisco's Chinatown Merchants Association, says the association's annual celebrations began in 1990 to bring business back to Chinatown after the Loma Prieta earthquake devastated the city. The quake had cut off the area, and the celebrations were organized to send the message that Chinatown was open for business again. In recent years, the festival has drawn more than 100,000 people over two days and even attracted sponsors, she says. This year's celebration, for example, is being sponsored by AT&T.
"It brings the community together, and brings awareness to Chinatown," Yee says. "More people live in the suburbs nowadays and don't visit the city as much, but it's important that people know that we are a vibrant community, and it's also important for young people not to forget their history and heritage."
Celebrating festivals reinforces Chinese culture, says Eileen Leung, vice-president of Sacramento Chinese Culture Foundation. "If the younger generations see family members celebrating (the festival) year after year, they will remember it and it will help them remember their ethnicity This is a vestige that they can relate to," Leung says. "And they will continue to observe the traditions when they have families of their own."
There is no question of not celebrating the festival, says Iris Song, a senior business analyst and mother of two American-born daughters, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area. She recalls fond memories of family gatherings to share a 12-course banquet and after-dinner moon cakes under a silvery moon. "This festival always reminds me of fundamental family values - to care for the elderly and the young, to love your family members, and most importantly, to reunite with family whenever you can," she says.
Her two daughters, 7 and 4 years old, know next to nothing about their parents' home country, Song says. So she and her husband enrolled them in Mandarin after-school programs this summer, hoping they would learn about their heritage. And since the most important part of Mid-Autumn Festival heritage is the mooncake, she was delighted to find them at Costco this year.
It is the duty of the older generation to educate the young, Cathy Hung says. "I don't know whether it's important that children are interested initially but it's important that parents are fully aware that they have to educate their children."
For Chen Jie, who quit her job at HSBC three years ago and is now a homemaker, the festival means a day of quality family time. The mother of a 3-year-old daughter says she will bake moon cakes at home this year.
But there are differences in the way the holiday is celebrated in the US and at home in China, says Grace Lu, a teacher at PS 14Q in Flushing, New York. The festive atmosphere is more pervasive in China. "Here, we don't really have time to celebrate, because it isn't a holiday," she says. "Everyone is so busy. You seldom have time to think about celebration.
"The greatest difference is the culture. People feel much closer in China. Many festivals provide you the chance to get together (with family) or visit relatives and friends. But here the sense of family or gathering is not that strong."
Grace Lu says she finds it difficult to educate her children about Chinese festivals. "Maybe they are too young, but it is really hard to explain to them why we have to have a family dinner or why we have mooncakes. Living in the US, they can't understand Chinese culture."
But Hung says she is confident that the tradition will continue. "Young Chinese Americans are very proud of their heritage," she says. "I think for many years, people weren't as concerned about preserving culture or the language, but now every community has a Chinese school. The tradition will continue."
And how is the mooncake business in the US?
Mooncake sales reached $2 million last year, says Chan Xi, president of Kam Man Food, a leading Asian supermarket chain with stores in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. And on one fortuitous day, Chan sold 1,080 boxes of mooncakes.
Festivities in UK
Weibo, China's popular Twitter-like micro-blogging service, plays an important role in Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations in the United Kingdom. A group of Chinese graduates in the UK have planned a big Mid-Autumn Festival party and used a Sina weibo account, Red Scarf, to invite other young Chinese to join them.
"Mid-Autumn Festival is a time for family reunions, but we overseas Chinese can't reunite with family members, so we will have a party," says Guo Zhong, who started Red Scarf in the UK in December 2010. The party, which is expected to attract about 400 people, will be held in a club in central London's Oxford Circus on Friday.
Since 1949, every primary school pupil on the Chinese mainland has worn a red scarf (hong ling jin) and, hence, every person from the mainland will recognize the name.
"Red Scarf has 120,000 followers or fans on Sina weibo in the UK, so we decided to use the account to invite some of them," says Guo, who holds a master's degree in marketing communications. Her aim is to help young Chinese, especially students, to live a better life in the UK and inspire others. Red Scarf offers a wide range of information on subjects such as food, shopping, travel and job opportunities and tips on studying and living in the UK to help Chinese students solve their problems and embrace the British way of life.
Since Guo and her team posted the party news on Red Scarf early this month, thousands of people have discussed it on weibo and dozens of them registered in just one week.
Given Red Scarf's influence on Chinese people living in the UK, some sponsors have decided to distribute gift hampers at the party, which will present a combination of Chinese and Western elements. "We have invited a famous British DJ, and guests can enjoy some round cakes as well as mooncakes," Guo says.
Besides the Red Scarf's party, the Chinese community in the UK will also celebrate the festival in Chinatown on Sunday. This year, the celebration will concentrate on a grand art and cultural performance. "Many young Chinese have agreed to perform at the event," says Joseph Wu, press officer of the celebration committee.
Stores and restaurants at Chinatown are promoting mooncakes and festival dinner. Since Mid-Autumn Festival is the grandest holiday after Spring Festival in China, apart from relishing the mooncakes from Chinatown, most Chinese in the UK also make it a point to call family members in China. "Every year, I call my parents in Liaoning province on Mid-Autumn Festival day," says Sun Lina, who has been living in London for the past 10 years.
"When I was a student in the UK, I used to be homesick as important festivals approached," she recalls.
Now she is married and has two daughters. "Though the children are very young, I tell them and my British husband about the importance of Mid-Autumn Festival and buy them mooncakes," she says. "We even watch the moon, because the festival is also called Moon Festival, for the moon looks the biggest and roundest on that day."