You can spot Mid-Autumn Festival from a month away if you follow the glint and sparkle of mooncake packaging.
While I was growing up, my family would buy a box or two of mooncakes (月饼) filled with sweet lotus seed paste and salted egg yolks to enjoy during (and before and after) Mid-Autumn Festival. We’d take bite-sized slices of the dense, rich pastry with a strong cup of digestive pu’er tea while commenting on how rich and dense it was or whether this brand was any good.
In China these days, the world of business and officials has adopted the festival as an excuse for elaborate gift-giving and guanxi-strengthening during the fall season. Sweet mooncakes — not to be confused with meat mooncakes, 鲜肉月饼, which are uber-popular in Shanghai — are sold in tins and by the piece in supermarkets everywhere, but among those wishing to impress, a nice tidy tin box of plastic-wrapped traditional mooncakes apparently won’t cut it anymore. Häagen-Dazs and other chilled varieties, as well as fillings of coconut, nuts, chocolate, and red bean paste have become very popular, but it’s the lavish packaging these pastries come in that have taken me aback the last few Mid-Autumns I’ve spent in the country.
These were on display at our local Walmart: oversized gilded cases lined with satin and velvet, likely average-tasting mooncakes encased in tin and shiny paper, royal and gaudy all at once. As with so many aspects of life in this increasingly prosperous country, the reliance on façade to beg respect is almost embarrassingly blatant here.
The over-packaging of mooncakes even became news-worthy two weeks ago after the local Beijing government decided to start taxing employees on mooncakes received from their employers, based on the consideration of mooncakes as a fringe benefit. It seems that people are pissed mostly because the price of mooncakes has been inflated to hundreds of RMB per box due to over-packaging, which reportedly makes up more than half the total price.
I had no idea mooncakes were part of employee compensation here; I wonder if it’s stated in job contracts? It’s not in mine, which is just as well: with the amount of mooncake we’ve been receiving and snacking on as an office these last few weeks, I’m pretty relieved not to have been “gifted” a padded box to take home.
Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!