Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 27, 2021
Bookmark and Share

Of Monkey Gods and Moon Cakes

Two big festivals celebrate Hong Kong's harvest moon

A century and a half of British rule has left its mark on Hong Kong, where high tea, horse races and weekend-long cricket matches have become part of the social fabric. But despite its colonial past, the city has maintained its Chinese traditions, lending them a unique flair that can't be mistaken for either British or Chinese. Most of the area's annual festivals are observed in a frenzied and playful manner and include everything from dancing dragons and flaming lanterns to beds of burning coals and ladders of knives.

Mid-Autumn Festival
The name may be bland, but the mid-autumn festival, also known as the moon cake festival, is the loveliest night of the year and provides one of the most breathtaking evening views of Hong Kong as its parks are set ablaze with lanterns. The festival is tied to the lunar calendar and always falls on the 15th day of the eighth moon, which this year is October 1.

The jury is still out on the festival's origins. Some celebrate the moon as it shines brightest on the 15th night of the eighth lunar moon, a big deal in the Chinese calendar. For others, it commemorates Chang Er, a woman who drank an elixir of life and supposedly floated to the moon. The most popular explanation links the festival to the overthrow of the Mongol dynasty. In a 14th-century uprising, rebels wrote the call to revolt against the Mongols on tiny pieces of paper that they embedded in little cakes and smuggled to compatriots.

All this confusion simply means there is more to celebrate and most people mix them together to make one unforgettable night. As popular as any public holiday, the night-time festival is a favourite among kids, who are allowed to stay up long past bedtime. Families head to the hills with coloured lanterns and watch the huge moon rise before eating moon cakes (yuek beng). The revolutionary paper fillings for these sweet delights have been replaced with a wide range of edible goodies, including coconut, dates and the classic ground lotus and sesame seed paste with egg yolk.

Victoria Peak, with its amazing view of the harbour, is the spot to see all of Hong Kong on fire with thousands of glowing lanterns.

Monkey God Festival
For visitors with a taste for action rather than moon cakes, there's another festival the very next day, one of the most bizarre birthday parties you'll ever see. The festival celebrates the birthday of the Monkey God, an arrogant and rebellious creature who first made an appearance in Pilgrims to the West by Wu Chengen, one of the standard works of fiction during the middle of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

The Monkey God (Sun Wukong) is a mischievous hero with magical powers who was kicked out of Taoist heaven for stealing the Peaches of Immortality. To redeem himself, he accompanies the monk Tan Gan Zang on a pilgrimage to India to obtain the teachings of the Buddha.

This year's festival takes place on October 2 (the 16th day of the eighth moon) in Kowloon's Sau Mau Ping shanty-town temple. Possessed mediums recreate the Monkey God's ordeal by fire and stabbing during his pilgrimage, in which other gods tried to murder him. Participants engage in sadomasochistic feats not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach: cutting their own tongue with a sword, biting into porcelain cups and plates, sticking sharp razors in their body, running over a bed of burning coals and climbing a ladder with rungs of knives.

But you can still take part in the festival, albeit in a more passive way. Stand at a safe distance and watch the carnage, something you won't likely ever see again. Definitely not for the squeamish.

For more information about these or any of Hong Kong's festivals, contact the Hong Kong Tourism Board (3/F, 9 Temperance Street,Toronto ON M5H 1Y6; tel: 416-366-2389; fax: 416-366-1098;; www.


This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.