Each year on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, Mid-Autumn festival arrives, and with it, the giving and receiving of mooncakes. Shop windows fill with a wide range of gorgeously designed mooncake gift boxes ready to be purchased and given to friends and loved ones as part of the annual reunion of Mid-Autumn festival.
These ornately packaged gift sets, however, are a far step from the humble origins of mooncakes. Nestled away in the southern city of Huizhou, a local shop is honoring the family craft of making mooncakes by hand. Here, mooncakes are packaged simply and traditionally, rolled up in red and white paper, and placed on a simple metal tray inside the shop, waiting in plain sight for the arrival of loyal customers.
Every year the mooncake competition grows fiercer as more and more large corporate brands put their own uniquely designed and alluringly flavored mooncakes on the market. This large-scale factory-line commercialization pushes smaller mooncake businesses still using traditional methods into obsolescence.
Compared with modern mooncake manufacturing techniques, adhering to a handmade mooncake methodology is very laborious. Where modern mooncake factories have a slew of workers and a range of production machinery to assist, traditional shops have only few workers and one or two simple ovens.
The Huizhou mooncake shop is called lianxiang (莲香饼店) and the family who own and manage it tell us that, every year in the lead-up to Mid-Autumn festival, they only sleep 4 to 5 hours a night with the majority of their day focusing on the traditional step-by-step process of making mooncakes. They wake up early to go the local market to buy the freshest meat, then they marinate that meat for several hours, tenderize it, and then combine it with spices and other ingredients for the mooncake filling. And that is just step one.
This is the real portrayal of a traditional mooncake shop, and a window into the struggle for survival that they face. One thing that they have on their side though – sterile factories pumping out gorgeously packaged mooncakes cannot replicate the taste of the past, with the flavors of a childhood mooncake still etched in the reminiscent memory of many.
Stepping behind the counter at lianxiang mooncake shop yields a small back workshop complete with the fragrant aromas of freshly-baked mooncakes. The work surfaces are dusted with flour and mounds of readied mooncake fillings of minced meat and bright yellow egg yolks lie in wait. Two women mold the filling and wrap it dexterously in the mooncake skin. One mooncake after another is molded into near perfect shape with the two-woman production line moving at rapid pace.
Next the mooncakes are lined up and passed through a machine which molds them into a uniform shape and stamps an ornate crest on the top indicating the type of filling hidden inside.
Across from the stamping machine, an elderly man hunches over an oven, waiting for a timer to go off so he can check on the baked mooncakes. When they’re done, he removes them from the oven and carefully brushes the top of each with egg white before returning them inside for a final round of goldening.
This is a normal day at lianxiang mooncake workshop a week before Mid-Autumn festival.
The elderly man in front of the oven is Mr. Huang, the second-generation owner of lianxiang mooncake shop. He is now over 70 years old but still baking mooncakes with the expertise and ease that comes with a lifetime of honing a craft. Mr. Huang’s father founded this mooncake shop and remained at the helm until he approached 90 years old, at which point he handed down the ownership to his son, the present day Mr. Huang. And, when this Mr. Huang decides it’s time, he will follow suit and hand things over to his two daughters, the ones currently wrapping the mooncakes. The lianxiang mooncake shop is the definition of a family-run business.
Lianxiang mooncake shop was founded in the 1980s, when making and selling mooncakes was an even more daunting task with the absence of modern ovens and model-making machines. Mooncakes were made using coal fires and hand-stamped wood prints. The finished mooncakes would then be carried in woven baskets to the street where they would be sold to passers-by. Back then, without a permanent storefront, relationship building and communication was of paramount importance for business.
Despite lianxiang mooncake shop now having its own modest real estate, it’s remained true to its roots and the customers have returned the loyalty. Families of customers pass down the word to their children that this the best mooncake shop in the area, allowing the no-frills store to persevere the test of time and modernity.
With the torrid summer of southerly Guangdong fading slowly into autumn, only a few days are left before Mid-Autumn festival. Mr. Huang and his family are busy in the back diligently following the laborious process required to make the best mooncakes. Out front, by the red and white individually wrapped mooncakes, a man enters the shop exchanging pleasantries with the familiar cashier as he approaches the counter.
As residents of far-away cities return to their hometown of Huizhou to join their families for Mid-Autumn, they head to lianxiang to buy their annual mooncakes. The taste of home and the memories of their childhood found here can never be matched.
By Oreo Zeng (曾晓彤)