Saturday, August 6, 2011

Lantern Night

As a Chinese kid growing up in Singapore, there were a few important festivals to look froward to.
The Chinese Lunar New Year is No.1 for the angpows and money to save up; at No. 2 would be the Dumpling Festival for 'em once-a-year glut-rice wonders; No.3 goes to the Chinese calendar seventh month 'Ghost Festival' for its other worldliness and chance visit of a spirit (which always never happens); last but not least, the Lantern or Mid-Autumn Festival that's the highlight of a kid's entire existence. It's a time to eat a lot of mooncakes and play with fire and matches - stuff we would normally be forbidden to experiment with. After all, we would still hear of terrible attap-house fires in kampungs (like the Bukit Ho Swee fire) still in the local news media.

Today, I think kids expect the Lantern Festival for a different reason. It is now better known as the Mooncake Festival and its staggering array of mooncakes available. The cakes have all sorts of fillings, skin types and packaging. Each Festival, stores would try to outdo each other with the most outlandish or exquisite box design and flavor of mooncake.

Growing up, mooncakes were not that sophisticated. There were fewer flavors and the packaging more down-to-earth. Some mooncakes were just rolled in waxed paper and plastered on with a red label with handwritten words in Chinese.

Snowskin mooncakes did not exist then. If it did, history would say they were probably served to an emperor or VIP, not to common folk. Black tausar was the typical filling. Even linyong was considered a luxury.

We also did not have flavours like pandan or coffee. The popular hak tau sar (Cantonese, black sweet bean paste) often times came with gua chi (white melon seeds) for that added crunch. We don't seem to find them these days. I think kids have forgotten how wonderful gua-chi is.

As said, linyong or lotus seed paste filling, is a upper class gift.. The same with mooncakes filled with whole egg yolks (salted duck eggs actually). Another expensive mooncake was the ng hum kum tuoi or what is now known as the Mixed Nut. It has a filling of five different kinds of nuts and assorted seeds all tightly packed together in a sticky malt; quite like a honey nut-brittle energy bar. This mooncake even has "twoi" inside, which is Cantonese for bacon. As you can imagine with so many ingredients, this ng hum kam tuoi has a rather complicated citrus/cinnamon flavour - the reason why I like it so much. Another reason could be that my taste buds have been brought up Cantonese. 

Not surprisingly, given its long list of ingredients, this NHKT mooncake is rather costly and finding an authentic one can be a challenge these days. And a vegetarian one cannot cut it. It needs that fatty pork. Finding a good one is quite worth the effort. Local restaurant Li Bai still serves up a very good one (current price in 2014 is about $55 for four). But as a kid, I remember the flavour being stronger. 

Having grown up with the black tau sar with melon seed mooncake, I will always try to find it at the shops. But it is quite difficult these days as folks (being wealthier over the years) much prefer the linyong types. At times I wonder if it has become extinct! Eating too much of the linyong types can make one 'heaty'.

My fix for missing out on the hak tau sar is to buy the Teochew ones. Unlike normal mooncakes, these have flaky skin making it seem like a big tau sar paeng or tau sar piah (Hokkien). Besides the main black tau sar filling, it has also a layer of sugared winter melon and white sesame seeds. It is not exactly the same as its mundane predecessor but, by itself, pretty special. It is especially heavenly if you have a sweet tooth!

In terms of packaging, the mooncakes of the past were all no-nonsense packed contained in a hexagonal shaped (grey) cardboard box with a red label and silver brush writing. The top of the box may be hexagonal but inside it is square, just nice for four mooncakes. The base tray is grey but papered white. Some mooncakes do not come boxed but are simply roll-wrapped in white paper or grey tracing paper and stuck with a large red, handwritten label. Usually the soft and flaky skinned types would come packed this way.

As mentioned before, mooncakes today are so extravagantly packaged that you'll think the designers are trying to outdo each other for some major award. I've seen boxes decorated in all manners of jade, ancient coin, knotted tassel  - all to reflect various aspects of Chinese culture. One time, I even saw leather (shaped like an expensive handbag. I found it all a wee bit too much but this is what happens when mooncakes become corporate or business gifts). With such a surfeit of mooncakes available, it is no wonder that folks are sick of them and take every opportunity to give them away as goodwill, good riddance presents!

Some of the more fancy mooncake boxes come in highly compressed cardboard to make them look like wood. You know, they do cost money to make AND to dispose of. I think time and money could be better spent than what is essentially waste as soon as the festival is over. I am particularly appalled when I see metal boxes. Such a material would be better deployed for other purposes than what is considered a seasonal fad. Aren't we depleting Earth's mineral resources as we read this?

Don't get me wrong, I think some of these new mooncake boxes are quite unique and lovely. My family enjoys recycling, and so my mom would usually keep the better designed boxes as containers for her jade collection or sewing works. I must say the Chinese-themed designs complement her oriental treasures very well!

A unique mooncake box that I have kept is a metal one with floral designs. Its uniqueness lay inside, a musical box that plays 'ye liang dai piao wo de xin' or The Moon Represents My Heart, an evergreen song made popular by the late songbird Teresa Teng. It happens to be one of my favourite tunes and one that is very appropriate for this mid-autumn festival.

In the past, besides eating mooncakes, it was also common to eat steamed mini yams and linkok (that's the osbeck horn nut). We kids enjoyed peeling the yams and dipping them in sugar for a bite. The linkok - shaped like a bat - was eaten as a symbol of Good Fortune. I've always found the shape to be interesting (upside down, it looks like Salvador Dali's mustache). The linkok flesh is quite nice, tasting a bit like chestnut but with the texture of soft macadamia. The shell can also made into a spinning toy, something my mom would craft for us kids. Two years ago, I saw linkok being served up as a steamed dish at a community centre event. But the kids (and even the parents) seemed rather clueless about its origins and festival significance. Pretty sad.

With linkok, there's a ditty that goes with it:

Yuit kong kong
(Moon bright bright)
Jiu deh tong
(Shine on Earth)
Lin sam ah man
(On the eve night)
Jak pung long
(Pluck 'bing lang')
Pung long heong
(Bing lang fragrant)
Jak chi kiong
(Peel young ginger)
Chi kiong lat
(Ginger hot)
Mai fu lap
(Buy fu lap)
Fu lap fu
(Fu lap bitter)
Mai g toh
(Buy pig stomach)
G toh feh
(Pig stomach fat)
Mai ngau peh
(But cow skin)
Ngau peh pok
(Cow skin thin)
Mai lin kok
(Buy water caltrop)
Lin kok jim
(WC pointed/sharp)
Mai ma peen
(Buy horse whip)
Ma peen cheong
(Horse whip long)
Hei oak leong
(Raise roof beam)
Oak leong go
(Roof beam high)
Mai jeong doh
(Buy a knife)
Doh chit choy
(Knife cut veg)
Mai lor goi
(Buy drum cover)
Lor goi yuin
(Drum cover round)
Mai jek shuin
(Buy a ship)
Shuin tao ai
(Ship head/aft low)
Jum sei leong jak fan gwai zai
(Drown two foreigners)

Here: A Youtube of the ditty
Growing up, Lantern Festival would start for us kids not by its Chinese calendar date, but as soon as we saw the pretty lanterns hanging outside the provision shops along the five-foot ways . When that happens, we would pester our parents to go buy one. In those days, we did not have plastic battery operated ones; all were handmade. Materials used then were bamboo strips and cellophane. Designs were all hand-painted on. At times, paper cutouts were glued on instead.

However, as excited as we kids were, my mom would delay buying them, which was quite annoying. Her reason was that we would spoil the lanterns even before the festival commenced. I must say she had a point then. We were after all, a family of six rowdy kids. Impatient hands would surely rip the pretty lanterns up before Lantern Night proper. So my mom was quite right in holding back her purchase.

At the other provision shop we patronized along Geylang Road, there was always an array of colourful cellophane lanterns hanging outside. Looking at it was like ogling at a sea of sparkling crystals with different transparent hues. Beautiful as well as mesmerizing! A sight one does not get to see everyday!

When buying lanterns, we would buy the necessary candles to go with it as well. It is comforting to know that the candles you find today comes in exactly the same packaging as of yesteryear. We needn't buy matches because back then everybody used either the stick matches that came in a flimsy box or the paper ones that came in a matchbook. I liked using the matchbook ones because all the TV spies used them, usually to convey some covert information written inside!

During Mid-Autumn Festival, no kid could not escape hearing the story of The Lady And Her Companion Rabbit On The Moon at least once. It's about how a maiden named Chang Er sacrificed herself by drinking some elixir of life and floating to the moon. (The rabbit didn't drink the elixir, so make up your own back story for this furry one). There's also the story of how, during the Yuan Dynasty, the mooncake was baked as a tool of communication to spread word of an impending revolt. That's how the Ming Chinese overthrew the Yuan Mongol rulers. It reminds me of the Arab Spring revolt of how certain Middle Eastern rulers were overthrown recently by their citizens using Twitter. So, the mid-autumn mooncake was the Twitter of its day! 

Before the Yuan dynasty, the Mid-Autumn Festival was actually a much simpler (and probably less expensive) affair. It was after the Yuan Period that the mooncake came into being. I bet the people in Hong Kong are regretting it now. They throw away some one million mooncakes a year!

Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of August in the Chinese calendar. That's when the moon is full. We often refer to that night as "lighting the lantern night" or simply, "Lantern Night".

During my childhood, come Lantern Night, the back lanes of Geylang would come alive with children carrying their candle-lit lanterns. It was kind of compulsory to leave the house and go walk around with one (maybe the adults just wanted us kids out of the house!) This happened usually after an early dinner. Older children were often given the task to look after the younger - and less experienced - ones. The other reason could be that candles and matches were being used. Hot wax dripping on small little fingers can be very painful!

Our lanterns were typically in the shapes of animals from the Chinese zodiac. Creatures such as the Rabbit, Rooster or Dragon. Kids would naturally choose their own zodiac animal out of pride. Outside of the zodiac, a popular animal was the goldfish. Superheroes themes were common too. We had Superman, Batman and Ultraman - all framed up in flying poses. It is terrible these days to see lanterns that are nothing but plastic toys with a light in them. It is all very ugly and not in the spirit of things. I think the person who came up with this idea owes a few generations of children a big apology. If safety was a concern, parents could make their kid carry a paper accordion lantern instead. The candle flame inside would flicker about less, so safer. In a dark alley, these candle-lit lanterns were nice to look at!

As the lanterns were all handmade, shopping for a lantern was like shopping for art at a gallery: you find the best piece of handiwork that appealed to you. A lantern didn't cost much because the materials were cheap. Schools often took the opportunity to make them during art class. But students would make the frames out of wire instead of the more traditional bamboo strips.

For some, the challenge was how to make both sides of the lantern equal. A simple method is to define the shape on, say, plywood and then nail up the outline; this would act as a wire bending frame. With such a contraption, you can then repeat the same bends and twists without losing shape!

For the adults, what would Lantern Festival be all about? Well, it is about savouring mooncakes, drinking Chinese tea and chatting with friends. If you have a literary bent, you could recite Tang poetry (that famous Li Bai poem with gazing at the moon and feeling homesick) or play that couplet-guessing game. In Geylang in the past, the adults would eat mooncake, drink tea, and chat over a game of mahjong. My neighbourhood without the sound of mahjong on Lantern Night would be like a field without the sound of crickets in the evening. Quite unnatural!

For children, the Festival is also a great chance to play with fire. A chance to learn how to light a match. And a chance to learn the pain of seeing your precious lantern go up in smoke! It was the same in the past as it is now.

As you know, each traditional lantern is lit by a small candle. If you do not put your candle up properly, it will lean precariously to one side and start a fire. You then learn very quickly that cellophane burns with alarming speed.

Sometimes in all the excitement, kids would bump into each other and trip crushing their own lanterns beneath them. In the past, families would buy extra so the fun would not be extinguished too soon for some awkward kid! (If you see a kid crying and holding an empty stick, you'd know what has just happened!)

And I think if you ask anybody today, they would be able to recall the very first lantern they either owned or burnt, such is the psychological trauma. But we kids loved carrying a lantern about then! And having brought the lanterns home, we would often hang them by the bedpost and admire them till Lantern Night arrived. In Singapore, over the years, children from the other races and cultures have also joined in the occasion. It's a great thing to see.

Of course, Lantern Night was more than just about lanterns when I was a kid. With matches and candles in hand, it was also time to take revenge on the creepy crawlies. Ants got it worst. My friends and I would be hunched and squatted beside some drain dripping wax on them. 

One time, during Lantern Night, we found a dead dog in the back alley. Its body was already badly decomposed. With our lanterns held over it, we could see maggots swarming inside the carcass. We burnt the maggots then. But it got gruesome after a while and so we decided to tell an adult about it. That night we cremated the poor creature in the drain by piling on the newspapers and soaking them in turpentine. It created an inferno that attracted more kids to the scene.

From our third storey apartment, the sight of children with candle-lit cellophane lanterns dotting the back lanes was special. You'd get tints of red, blue, green, yellow, etc., dancing off the walls. As a kid, it made you reflect on the more quiet and beautiful moments in your life.

Years later, I would have a flashback of that back lane scene. At the time, I was up in a mountain in Taiwan performing National Service military training. We were digging a very nasty trench that refused to be dug. After two hard days of slogging, we didn't even reach knee deep. The problem was that the area was filled with large stones and rocks. Compounding the situation were some very tough tree roots that seemed to snake everywhere. We broke so many changkuls (hoes) and spades that we were ordered to immediately stop. Our army couldn't afford to replace them anymore!

During a break, I wandered off to a comrade's location. His camp site was further alongside the mountain path and looked down the valley. There at the bottom, around a small pond, were a group of kids. They had with them their Mid-Autumn Festival lanterns. As the wind blew, their candles flickered. From afar, the whole group looked like a train of fireflies instead. It was pretty special and a rather magical moment. It reminded me of a similar time a decade ago in the back lanes of Geylang.

That night, we NS soldiers were all given a special snack of red bean soup. There were no mooncakes but it did not matter. The full moon was out and we all felt connected back home. That seemed good enough for us boys so far away from home learning to defend our country.

Next story: Big Field Wild Fence

Click here: For A Very Special Mid-Autumn Festival Tale

Teochew Mooncake

Mixed Nuts Mooncake

Lin kok spinning toy.
Lin kok or water caltrop.
Top: L-R
- Beetroot snow skin with lotus paste, white chocolate and cream cheese filling.
- Blue Moon snow skin with Amaretto-infused lotus paste, with blueberry cheese feuillantine.
Bottom: L-R
- Autumn Jade snowskin pandan-flavored lotus paste, parmesan cheese, mandarin orange-infused chocolate soft centre.
- Heavenly Gold snow skin with pure premium Musang King durian filling.

Back alley where dead dog was found (recent pix).
This back alley used to be unpaved of sand and grass.

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