From shady beginnings tainted with corruption to a full-blown waste crisis in our city, we take a look at the sordid history of the mooncake.
Synonymous with the Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls on September 25 this year, the mooncake has always been more about politics than food. While the densely-packed baked delicacy is traditionally gifted as a means of establishing and maintaining “guanxi” – a Chinese phrase which literally means “relationships” – it turns out this naughty little cake has a lot to answer for. From shady beginnings tainted with corruption, to a full-blown waste crisis in our city, we take a look at the sordid history of the mooncake and reveal its darkest secrets.
Many Moons Ago...
As folklore goes, mooncakes were believed to have been used by Ming revolutionaries who used them to spread their political message in a plot to overthrow their Yuan Dynasty rulers (1279 to 1368). Slips of paper were baked into the cakes and were allegedly used to prompt rebels to rise up on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, when the Mid-Autumn Festival is now celebrated. However, nowadays, you are only likely to find yolks from salted duck eggs inside these little pastries, which are offered between friends and family while celebrating the festival. Despite the evolution of the mooncake into what is now considered a harmless custom, it has found itself at the centre of controversy in recent years. Not so innocent after all!
Who would have imagined that mooncakes would be used as bribery? It sounds absurd, but it has been revealed that in recent years, luxury goods, precious metals, crystals, and plain old wads of cash have been stuffed into mooncakes, or slipped in their elaborate boxes, particularly in mainland China. The issue even became serious enough to attract the attention of global law firms such as Baker & McKenzie, which issued a corporate compliance guide called When is a Mooncake a Bribe? in 2012. The following year, Norton Rose Fulbright issued a set of guidelines, entitled Mooncakes – guanxi or graft?, advising companies to set strict rules about what is permissible to give, and to whom, in order to avoid running afoul of anti-bribery laws.
Since then, increasing numbers of companies have followed suit. In fact, mooncakes have been on the radar of Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption since 2009, when a construction company director was jailed for two months for trying to bribe the police with 15 boxes of them. Unsurprisingly, the police returned them all.
In 2013, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) shed further light on the issue in a report on a practice called “mooncake gambling” in the city of Xiamen in the Fujian Province of China. It explained that "an influential official, or a businessman, receiving a box of mooncakes might often find something else inside – such as a high-end watch or gold coins." Evidently, some buyers didn’t even bother hiding the gold! Speaking of gold, the South China Morning Post reported in 2012 that a China Merchants Bank branch in Shanghai sold thousands of solid gold mooncakes for a whopping 16,000 yuan each.
It wasn't until 2013 when Beijing finally cracked down, banning officials from using public funds for the purchase of mooncakes. The following year, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CPC) encouraged mooncake tattle-tales, setting up a “special tip-off window” on its website for netizens to report the “squandering of taxpayers' money by civil servants”. It also warned that any officials caught violating the strict code would be “named and shamed” in a weekly report on the website. According to China Daily, on the very day the window opened, the CCDI revealed that 154 violations of the eight-point rules by officials had been reported in the previous week. By the end of June, 61,703 officials had been punished for breaching the rules.
Thankfully in Hong Kong, the issue of mooncake corruption is not so prominent, and – outside of politics – these cakes are genuinely regarded as an important part of local culture. Symbolising completeness, unity, and the fullness of the moon, the round-shaped treats are meant to be shared to bring people together – be it friends, families, or colleagues. They are not supposed to be devoured in whole by one person, and even the most enthusiastic mooncake munchers must share their spoils as part of the Mid-Autumn spirit. Some particularly auspicious participants say the cake should be cut into eight pieces – the Chinese "lucky" number.
Bakeries all across Hong Kong are certainly quick to jump on the mooncake bandwagon too, raking in over a third of their annual revenue in one single month. Walk into any supermarket in the lead up to the Mid-Autumn Festival and you’ll find yourself bombarded with various flavours and varieties – from the traditional kind (filled with red beans or lotus seed paste) to creative alternatives such as the snowy ones (modernised and made fun to attract the younger crowd). You can even find the “healthy” variety (or rather, less unhealthy) which are low in fat and sugar, and high in fibre, designed to cater to more health-conscious consumers.
Then, of course, there are the high-end mooncakes, handmade by chefs at Michelin-starred restaurants and five-star hotels, which sell out weeks – even months – in advance. Among the most infamous are the Mini Egg Custard Mooncakes made by the Peninsula Hotel (pictured above), which have already sold out and are said to sell on the black market for more than double their retail price!
Mad about Mooncakes? Apparently not.
Despite the fact that mooncakes are still considered to be a delicacy, it turns out that not everyone actually enjoys eating them. A survey conducted in 2016 by environmental group Green Power revealed that a whopping 60 percent of Hongkongers dislike receiving mooncakes as gifts, while 12 percent are strongly against receiving them. This might explain why a shocking one million mooncakes were thrown in the trash by Hongkongers that same year.
So why do we keep on giving them?Ironically, the same survey suggests that while most people don't like to receive mooncakes, they don't have a problem giving them away as gifts in the name of "tradition". Generally, the main cause of the mooncake wastage is receiving too many as gifts – far more than can possibly be consumed – even if you are a fan. In fact, few younger consumers will eat more than their obligatory slice, even though new-fangled flavours like ice cream or chocolate have gained popularity. The second reason is that not all mooncakes can be eaten before the expiry date, so until we find a new way to show our affection around this time of year, it seems the cycle will continue.
The Gift that Keeps on Giving
They say what goes around comes around – and this certainly is the case for mooncakes. Luckily in Hong Kong, nobody is uptight about the wide practice of ‘re-giving’ boxes of them, and many local support staff would be more than happy to have your extra boxes to give to their families, so there’s always a bright side. This is an accepted practice of the 'Mooncake Economy' leading up to the holiday date – in fact, people might half expect you to give away the box they’ve just given you!
If, however, you are bombarded with mooncakes destined for the rubbish bin, the Environmental Protection Department has a list of charities that will happily take non-perishable ones off your hands. Among these is The Salvation Army Hong Kong, which in 2014, collected nearly 30,000 mooncakes and gave them to the homeless in Yau Ma Tei.
Hong Kong based non-profit A Drop of Life, also collected 5,888 mooncakes and received another 1,500 from Maxim. These were delivered to the elderly, low-income families, and homeless people in Tuen Mun, Sham Shui Po, Shui Wai, and Sheung Shui, among others.
So, as you gear up for the most magical time of the year in Hong Kong, and look forward to strolling under the gaze of the moonlight and watching the Fire Dragon dance through the streets, you might want to reconsider reaching for that box of mooncakes in your local Wellcome. Remember, your nearest and dearest could be part of that 60 percent!