Monday, September 15, 2008


Moonstruck

"Gee, but it's good to be back home," I mumbled to myself like some half-wit Paul Simon imitator marveling a little at the irony of coming "home" to Shenzhen where I'd spent a considerable portion of three years after first arriving in China. In a combination of impulse and romantic gesture, I'd flown south 1,200 or so miles from Beijing to Shenzhen to be with C during the Mid-Autumn or "Mooncake" Festival over the weekend.

Lovers are supposed to gaze at the full moon on the 15th of September to see a princess, Chang'e, and her jade rabbit who've been exiled there waiting for Chang'e's husband/lover to visit once a year from the sun. There are multiple versions of a somewhat incomprehensible legend and a plethora of mooncakes, China's version of the fruitcake, to mark it.

The myth - which explains why the Chinese see a rabbit on the moon, rather than the man westerners see - involves Chang'e stealing a pill for eternal life from her husband. She is then either exiled or flees to the moon with a rabbit. Questions to Chinese friends 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 magic 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.'' One version of the story has the rabbit pounding out herbs to remake the eternal life medicine immortalized by mooncakes.

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 gift boxes began filling Chinese 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 duck egg yolks, red bean paste and lotus seeds. They also have the half life of plutonium, approximately 2,400 years. (One I choked down for a Mooncake festival two years ago is still lodged in my upper colon, according to X-rays that continue to baffle researchers at the Mayo Clinic and the US Food and Drug Association.)People give them but rarely eat them which was the quandry C found herself in as we prepared to go to a Sunday Mid Autumn Festival barbecue hosted by a friend of hers.

C had an enormous promo gift box from a gazillion star Shenzhen hotel stacked with glitzy wrapped mooncakes. Neither one of us wanted any of the mooncakes or the tiny ceramic tea pot that came with it and she was anguishing over whether to take it as a "gift" or give it to someone else.

"No one you know eats them," I said. "Why bother giving them? Or if we must at least let's take a bottle of wine."

"You cannot bring mooncakes and a bottle of wine to a Chinese party," she said firmly as if explaining to a cretin why it's impolite to urinate on your grandmother's shoes. Though tempted, I didn't go there. We haven't survived four years together with long separations by niggling over obscure points of Chinese party etiquette.

Suffice to say we were drinking the wine several hours later at the party, a rooftop affair that kind of encapsulated the State of Modern Urban China. The hostess was a divorced single mother living on the ninth floor of an apartment with no elevator. We should have hired sherpas to stagger to her door. She was throwing the party with her ex-husband with whom she's still close, and her job as a marketing manager for an Chinese-Australian alligator meat company apparently pays her enough to afford the flat screen plasma TV covering her living room wall.

Her parents and ex-in laws were playing mah jong in one room as the rest of us ate barbecued meat, vegetables and fish (no gator meat, though) and listened to remixed old school hip-hop - (Who Let the Dogs Out melded with Chinese pop - an unholy though amusing combo) and watched the little kids shoot each other with plastic guns that screamed, "FIRE" when the trigger was pulled.

I was still wondering how the hell someone makes a living selling alligator meat to Chinese (though they'll famously eat "anything", I've never seen it here) when C nudged me.

"See the moon? See Chang'e and the rabbit?" she said. Sure enough, through Shenzhen's polluted skies it glowed until a cloud covered it.

"Oh, no...She's hidden now," I said.

"Her lover is visiting now," she said. "They need some privacy."

I took the hint, we thanked China's 'gator meat empress and left.

5 comments:

Deborah Shlian said...

Hi: Just discovered your blog because I had posted something about the Moon Festival to explain the title of my new thriller, Rabbit in the Moon. Are you a reporter based in China?

john said...

So Justin - were all of the moon cakes produced in a mad science experiment in 1906 along with all of the fruit cakes in the US ... and for that matter the candy corn, which I understand was produced as part of the War Effort in 1943.

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Anonymous said...

Good day!

It is my first time here. I just wanted to say hi!