Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Dark Side of the Moon
Tonight marks the Mid-Autumn Festival, a night with a full harvest moon, an somewhat incomprehensible legend behind it and a plethora of mooncakes, China's version of the fruitcake, to mark it.
The legend -- which explains why the Chinese see a rabbit on the moon, rather than the man the rest of us see -- involves a woman who steals a pill for eternal life from her husband and then floats to the moon with a rabbit. Questions to Chinese co-workers about why she ripped off her husband (they are ''happily married'' in the versions I read) and why she took the rabbit with her and what happened to the pill were met with shrugs.
"I had a pet rabbit when I was a little girl,'' one told me in a sort of non-sequitor. "But my uncle ate him.''
I was also ignorant of mooncakes last year at this time, though I'm not sure how I missed them. Much like the Halloween and Christmas geegaws that begin slithering into the US supermarkets in early September, stacks of elaborately packaged and sometimes outrageously expensive mooncake boxes began filling Hong Kong and mainland grocery aisles in early August. Mooncakes are a culinary atrocity -- as dense as iridium, usually the size and shape of hockey pucks, greasy and fried in pork lard and often stuffed with as many as four egg yolks, red bean paste and lotus seeds.
And the containers are an environmental disaster. An pollution study in Hong Kong says that each household buys about 10 mooncakes. 1.75 million of these mooncakes will simply be thrown out uneaten. Friends of the Earth says that 3 million mooncake metal containers weighing 750 tons will be tossed into landfills.
I tried one last weekend and after choking it down found it seemingly expanded in my stomach, sitting there for hours during which I had the desire to do nothing but pass out and wait for the mooncake to work it's way out of my system.
The packaging and cakes themselves can also vary - sometimes dramatically. There's a 1,800 yuan (US$217) box I saw that came with a certificate for a set of golf clubs. If you've got 310,000 yuan (US$37,554) to splurge you can get the cakes along with a digital camera, video camera, gold plated cigarette lighter, bottle of expensive Chinese booze, a Parker gold pen, tea leaves, health food (!) as well as the title to a 1,000+ square foot apartment.
You can have boxes shipped world-wide, too. There's a advertising poster for such a service in my apartment elevator that shows an spry looking Chinese granny with nicely coiffed white hair who is grimacing or smiling at the thought. From the corner of one eye falls what either appears to be a cloudy tear or pus from an eye infection.
But like fruitcakes they are relatively inexpensive and purchased as quickie gifts and then passed on for years because like fruitcakes, uranium and Keith Richards' liver they have half lives of 760 million years and will be here long after we've departed this veil of tears.
As I write this, a young woman reporter is trying to foist Snoopy shaped mooncakes off on the rest of the staff with no success.
"Why don't you take them home?'' I asked.
She briefly made a face. "I already have six boxes there," she said. "All gifts. I can't stand them, either."

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