With most large-scale events going online this year, would old traditions cope well with the new-age transition? Writer Huei Suen attends the 2020 digital edition of the Wan Qing Mid-Autumn Festival and reflects on how it did just that.
With over 3000 years of history, the Mid-Autumn Festival is no stranger to most of us. In fact, if I asked you what you knew about the Mid-Autumn Festival, you would probably mention mooncakes and lanterns. If I asked you if you knew about its myths, you might have to rack your brain, until you eventually recall the Goddess Chang E, who drank an elixir and flew to the moon.
However, is the Mid-Autumn Festival still relevant today? Why do we still celebrate it? Does it take on new meaning with 2020’s remote arrangements? To answer these, we need to firstly understand the brief history of Mid-Autumn Festival.
Originating from the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907AD), the Mid-Autumn Festival is the second most important traditional festival to Chinese people around the world after Chinese New Year. It calls for families to reunite and was originally celebrated to thank the Gods for the bountiful harvest. On the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar, families can look forward to the bright full moon, which is why it is also known as the Moon Festival. In Singapore, the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall holds an annual celebration of the Wan Qing Mid-Autumn Festival. This year, however, the event has moved online. Hold that sense of disappointment though... the online experience is far from lacklustre.
I attended the 2020 digital edition of the Wan Qing Mid-Autumn Festival and found out just how a creative, modern twist has managed to reinvigorate this historical festival and its significance in our lives. Let's check out some of the highlights.
1. Mid-Autumn Craft Tutorial: Create your own bunny lantern
Carrying lanterns is a staple activity of the Mid-Autumn Festival since its origin. It also happens to be my favourite part as the glow from the candles illuminate the warmth that this festival brings to families that gather for a lantern walk. However, I never knew that lanterns could be handmade with paper plates and paper doily.
This was truly an engaging and educational activity - especially for younger minds. Moreover, it conveys the significance of lanterns in the festival. For instance, the shape of the lantern is round because in Mandarin, ‘round’ (yuan) bears similar sounds to ‘reunion’ (tuan yuan). The lantern is, hence, a symbolic ornament of bringing families together. Additionally, the reason for the light in the lantern is to convey the celebratory spirit (and not just to light the way of your walk). By giving us the option to customise our own lanterns, we are able to contribute personal meanings of this festival through our own designs. We aren't just following instructions - we are being a part of history itself.
2. In the Kitchen with Chef Donny Tan: Sweet Union Pear
Pears (pronounced as ‘li’ in Mandarin) are a symbolic fruit in Chinese culture, as it is homophonous with the Mandarin word for ‘separation’ (‘li’). Consuming pears during Mid-Autumn Festival therefore symbolises a desire for reunion, and is believed to prevent separation from loved ones. The festival invited Chef Donny Tan to teach special guests Aiken Chia (from Night Owl Cinematics) and his mother Rosalynn (Mummy Ros) to create a delectable poached pear dessert of their own.
But the desert making was not that simple... The video started off with a challenge for the guests to link arms while they made the dish! As the guests could only use their other free arm, they were challenged to work together and communicate effectively. At one point, they even had to coordinate their hands and fingers to produce rolled balls to symbolise the ‘sweet unity’.
This would make a great challenge for families, friends, and couples to learn more about each other’s communication and teamwork style. Moreover, it adds fun to how Mid-Autumn Festival can be celebrated. By connecting tradition with modern technology, this simple but creative activity has the potential to not only bring family and friends together, but also showcase the signicance of this festival and its dishes to the world.
3. Fun with Lantern Riddles
The festival also delivered with the smaller things - like its engagement on social media. Lantern riddles, known as 灯谜 (deng mi), are written on lanterns itself or on slips of paper attached to the lanterns. Scholars traditionally competed to solve them to boast their intelligence since they could refer to anything from a word, idioms, historical figures, literary pieces and even China’s geography. Today, anyone around the world can try their hand at solving riddles - even us. In promoting the event, the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall's Facebook page published some brain-teasers for all of us try.
Have a go at this one yourself!
(Use your cursor to highlight the answer)
Did you get it right? I managed to guess the answer easily! What caught my attention was how the riddle was in English rather than Mandarin and I am sure this has some merit towards why I found the riddles easy. While some might perceive using English as diluting the standard of the traditional lantern riddles, I believe it strengthens the spirit of Mid-Autumn Festival.
Lantern riddles are now accessible to people of all backgrounds since one does not have to speak Mandarin to take part. This makes solving lantern riddles an apt activity for friends, families and loved ones to experience together and effectively promotes the meaning of reunion in Mid-Autumn Festival. Moreover, it takes on new meaning with the Internet. Long-distance relationships can also engage in the activity with the click of a link. This has led to innovative ways to celebrate the festival even if we are physically apart from our loved ones.
4. Which mooncake are you?
Mooncakes, also called 月饼 (yue bing), were originally used as a sacrifice to the Moon. Ancient Chinese emperors believed that worshipping the Moon would bring them bountiful harvest the following year. The first person to offer sacrifices to the moon was Hou Yi (Hint: Chang E’s husband). Once, he used his arrow to shoot nine out of 10 suns and was given an immortality elixir.
However, Peng Meng, a disciple of Hou Yi, threatened Chang E with a sword when Hou Yi was out. In a moment of desperation, Chang E drank the elixir and she floated from the ground and flew towards heaven as a Goddess. As she wanted to stay close to Hou Yi, she stayed on the moon which was the nearest to Earth. Despite grieving, Hou Yi found that the moon was especially clear and there was a shadow that was exactly like his wife. He arranged offerings in the form of a mooncake, to the moon and this practice took off when the other people heard of what happened.
Originally, mooncakes were made with lotus paste and salted egg yolk. In 2020, the selection of mooncakes ranges from snowskin outering, durian filling, chocolate truffle filling, pumpkin seeds and more. So much so that Wan Qing Mid-Autumn Festival has tied horoscopes to the flavours!
As mooncakes are often consumed by families when they reunite, I looked up the horoscopes of my immediate family members. I came across a Vietnamese mooncake and the snowskin mooncake with champagne. Exotic flavours indeed! I personally found this chart useful in helping me decide what I could get for my family members instead of the traditional flavours. Moreover, this chart illustrates the vibrancy of modern-day mooncakes and Mid-Autumn Festival. It effectively dispels the notion that traditional festivals are old-fashioned and bland, making room for the younger generations to relate and indulge in the festival.
Now that you have a taste of what the activities are like, you might be excited to check them out yourself. But what is a festival without song and dance? Most festivals are traditionally accompanied by these elements and the Mid-Autumn Festival is no exception. Gracing the ceremony with their melodic harmonies, meet homegrown a cappella group The Apex Project.
5. Moon-themed A-cappella by The Apex Project
As a five-member group, they would have no problem charming their audiences with their powerhouse vocals. But, it’s not just their voices that shine. These talented individuals synergize well stylistically and musically to produce genre fluid melodies that are versatile and diverse, making them one of the most prolific performers in Singapore. In an euphonious, bilingual medley, The Apex Project paid an almost romantic tribute to the moon by seamlessly blending upbeat hits like Toploaders’s Dancing in the Moonlight, with melancholic classics like Teresa Teng’s 月亮代表我的心 in the first ever performance of the Music at Monuments – NHB x SCCC series.
If you are wondering how they managed to pull off something this amazing, don't worry - I have you covered with an interview with the band members themselves!
1. I understand that your acapella style includes pop and jazz. In terms of musicality, how was your creative process like for this Mid-Autumn Festival performance? Were there any clashes with your own style?
We first had a discussion to decide which songs would fit the Mid-Autumn Festival theme. Then from there, I began the arrangement process to tie the different songs together smoothly, bearing in mind to play on each of the member's unique capabilities to achieve the best outcome possible. After all, a cappella is a team sport and each of us plays a crucial part in enhancing the audience's listening experience.
Style wise, we arranged various genres we found best suit the song, for example, the jazz section for Fly me top the moon and Rnb for the David Tao song. The songs in the medley are definitely well within our preferred genre, with most of the songs falling in the pop category. We were also given full creative autonomy in the arranging process and that allows us to make the medley our own, adding some jazz twist along the way to spice things up.
One of the unique things about an a cappella group is that we get to perform in many different styles. This is the nature of the art form which we all love. Therefore, styles clashes are really rare and a new style always brings a lot of excitement to the arrangement.
-Kevin & Alejandro
2. Could you give us some hints about the repertoire? What could Singaporeans expect to hear?
It’s funny because there really aren’t many songs that one would associate with the Mid Autumn Festival apart from the classic oldies such as “Moon Represents My Heart”. However, after some brainstorming, we actually ended up with more potential songs than we expected! So, expect to hear a mix of English and mandarin songs across different periods and genres, in our style of course!
3. How do you feel Covid-19 has impacted your music?
Covid-19 has given us a lot of time to work on our music. Therefore everyone tried their hands on arranging and also taking classes from our main arranger, Kevin. For example, our latest release, “2020 All stars medley”, almost every member worked on the piece together. Same thing for the Moon medley. That could be the reason why the change in styles is more obvious.
It is also harder for us to focus on “happier” or uplifting songs due to how bad the whole entertainment industry is hit. Initially we had two tours lined up for 2020 which were both cancelled. I guess it is an unfortunate trade-off, while everyone gets to work more on arranging, we also miss a lot of overseas opportunities.
4. What do you hope to achieve from your upcoming performance?
I hope that our medley would be surprisingly enjoyable for our viewers, just like how it was for us when we were planning the numbers to be included in it. I hope that this performance would get people to be a little more curious about a cappella music.
In terms of general performances, I do hope to achieve a more refined live-stream a cappella sound. For now, I think we (as a whole industry) are still finding the right sound for live-stream. You can say we are hoping to achieve a perfect mix with an experienced a cappella sound engineer and proper equipment for our next live-stream performance.
The 2020 digital edition of the Wan Qing Mid-Autumn Festival is an exemplary example of how age-old traditions can be rejuvenated with new-age tools. It is comforting to see younger groups like The Apex Project paying tribute to the festival, and keeping the traditions relevant by mixing it up in their own unique style. You can play your part too - by reliving the full line up of events the Sun Yat Sen Facebook page by clicking here.
In essence, the Mid-Autumn Festival is about making time to come together with your loved ones and celebrating togetherness. For many, our modern lives have made us so incredibly busy, that a festival like Mid-Autumn is even more imperative today as a reason to gather. Do make this your reason to grab your loved ones and enjoy each others’ company.