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World

The Revolutionary History Of Mooncakes

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

People across East and Southeast Asia celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival yesterday. It marks the full harvest moon. And people mark the holiday with mooncakes.

BERNICE CHAN: They're not like your Western spongecake at all. They're quite dense.

SIMON: Bernice Chan is senior culture writer for the South China Morning Post and co-host of their podcast "Eat Drink Asia."

CHAN: Well, the one that people are most familiar with is with lotus seed paste, and it has salted duck egg yolks in them.

SIMON: Ms. Chan says mooncakes are a snack with a revolutionary history. Chinese rebels used them to communicate during their rebellion against Mongol rule.

CHAN: There was a rebel leader. His name was Zhu Yuanzhang. And he and his military adviser came up with the idea. You know, Mid-Autumn Festival is coming up. Everybody's going to be eating mooncakes that day. So why don't we put a secret message in there, and everybody's going to know what to do. According to folklore, that is what happened. And not soon afterwards, the Ming Dynasty was established. And Zhu Yuanzhang, that rebel leader, he became the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty.

SIMON: Mooncakes are political once more. Some bakers in Hong Kong have taken inspiration from those 14th century rebels.

CHAN: They saw that the anti-government protests were happening in early June, and they jumped on the idea of doing mooncakes. And stamped on them were protest slogans that people have been saying in protest marches.

SIMON: A controversial extradition bill set off the months-long protests. And although that bill has been withdrawn, protests continue. Among the messages stamped on cakes...

CHAN: Hong Kong people, add oil. This is a general saying telling people, you know, keep going, keep fighting. So the protesters have taken this to heart in how they've been doing these clashes with the police every weekend.

SIMON: Mooncakes are big business this time of year.

CHAN: You don't just buy a box of mooncakes for yourself or your family to eat. You buy it for your grandparents. You buy it for your friends. Businesses buy it for their clients.

SIMON: But there've been repercussions to the mooncake protests this year. Bernice Chan says mainland Chinese have boycotted Hong Kong bakery Taipan Bread and Cakes.

CHAN: The son of the founder was found to have written some comments on his Facebook page that were supportive of the Hong Kong protesters. So customers on the mainland refused to buy these mooncakes. So you can imagine the importers have lost a lot of money trying to sell these mooncakes in China this year.

SIMON: But others have seen business increase. Maybe the mooncake you buy depends on where you stand.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YUE LIANG DAI BIAO WO DE XIN")

TERESA TENG: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.