Archive for September, 2010

Of Moon, Cakes and Chinese Celebration

Text and photos by Lau Sook Mei

Moon cakes with lotus seed paste (front) and red bean paste filling.

There is much more to the Mid-Autumn Festival than moon cakes and lanterns. It is a major festival celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. This year it falls on 22nd Sept in the Gregorian calendar. It marks the end of the summer harvesting season that coincides with the autumn equinox when the moon appears to be fullest, brightest and the most beautiful. Fruits, vegetables and grains are abundant and it is time for relaxation, celebration and merry-making. Family members from far and wide gather for a reunion dinner.

Different varieties of moon cakes for sale.

Non-baked moon cakes.

Traditionally, the moon cake is a must-have. Like the moon, its round shape symbolizes unity and harmony. It is a baked pastry with a variety of sweet filling: seeds and nuts, lotus seed paste, red bean paste and others. Tucked in the centre of the cake is a golden, salted egg yolk (duck egg). Moon cakes are complemented by pomeloes, baby taros and the water caltrop, a kind of water chestnut which looks like black buffalo horns.

Colourful mini moon cakes in cartoon characters.

Baby taros and water caltrops.

What is the significance of the iconic moon cake? The origin of moon cake goes back to the 14th century Yuan Dynasty when China was ruled by the Mongols. As public gatherings were forbidden, the Han Chinese could not harness the community in its attempt to overthrow the Mongols. A plan was hatched: thousands of moon cakes would be distributed – hidden inside were the time and place of the uprising. That night, the 15th day of the 8th month the Hans drove the Mongols out of China .

Agar-agar (jelly) moon cakes.

Another traditional yummy: goldfish-shaped biscuits with lotus seed paste filling.

On this night, family members and friends would gather in the garden at home. Some people would make offerings to the gods, mainly food mentioned above, which would later be consumed. Apart from the festive specials, Children are happy for they get to play with lanterns and candles, the highlight of the evening. Chinese the world over observe this “tasty” tradition as they admire the beauty of the gorgeous moon.

Lanterns in various shapes and sizes.

Having a whale of a time with lanterns.

Many lengends and folklores surrounding the Mid-Autumn Festival are strongly associated to Chang’e, the Moon Goddess. One goes like this:

Long, long ago, ten suns burnt the earth. Crops failed, and many people died. Along came Hou Yi the archer who shot down nine of them and saved the earth. He was rewarded with the pill of immortality. Soon after, he met the beautiful Chang’e; they fell in love and got married. But Hou Yi turned into a tyrant, well-despised. To stop the eternal sufferings of the people, Chang’e took the pill of immortality and drifted up to the moon. To this day, she remains the Moon Goddess, keeping company with her jade rabbit.

This mid-autumn night, look at the moon; you may be lucky to see them on the surface.

Image of Chang'e on a biscuit.

Bathed in the silvery moonlight, here’s a poem for you by Li Qiao:

The Mid-Autumn Moon
A full moon hangs high in the chilly sky,
All say it’s the same everywhere, round and bright.
But how can one be sure that thousands of li away
Wind and perhaps rain may not be marring the night?


Here’s another interesting story regarding the Mid-Autumn Festival – the “lang-ting-tang men”. Any idea who they are?

Please go to the link to get to the bottom of it.


Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri


PHS would like to wish readers who are celebrating Hari Raya a


For those who are travelling, please drive safely and


Let’s have a fabulous celebration ALL in the spirit of



Conserving Pre-war Shophouses for Posterity

Text and photos by Lau Sook Mei

Nos. 2-22, Jalan Chung On Siew - 25/7/2010

Recently, rampant demolitions of old shophouses in Ipoh have become a major cause for concern. The latest blow involves the entire block of pre-war (pre-World War Two) shophouses, eleven units in all, bordered by Jalan Chung On Siew and Jalan Chua Cheng Bok in New Town

Stripped off their roofs.

Despite its derelict condition, this row of shophouses is one of the very few remaining in Ipoh that has survived intact. Only four years ago, Oscar winner, Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee had come to town to film “Lust, Caution” at this particular site, set in Shanghai in the 1940s. Lee had told the press that he chose Ipoh because “Ipoh retained many pre-war buildings and their unique architecture…and Ipoh is a nice place.” But what would he think of Ipoh today?

From two storeys to one.

During a recent trip to Guangzhou, China, a friend found that the streets there echoed those of Ipoh Old Town. Why is this so? This style of the old shophouses in southern China was imported into Malaya as the Chinese developed the towns in the 19th & 20th century.

As history goes, Ipoh originated as an orang asli village with a few attap houses in the 1880s. “The great fire of Ipoh” in 1892 destroyed half the village. It was only after this incident that Ipoh Old Town was rebuilt and replaced by brick buildings in a town re-laid by W.P. Hume, Kinta Collector of Land Revenue. *

Most pre-war shophouses in Ipoh today were built  by Chinese migrants who slogged and became tin-mining towkays. It was not for nothing that Ipoh is known as “the city that tin built” or “the city of millionaires”. The legacies of these millionaires include theatres, schools, clan associations and community halls. More than mansions and monolithic structures, these historical shophouses embody the modern development of Ipoh.

Pre-war shophouses are mostly double-storey: the ground floor for business and the upper floor, dwelling. Neat reticulated rows formed a uniform skyline. A prevalent feature of these shophouses is the “five-foot-way” or verandah, a covered walkway formed by the overhang of the upper floor, marked by columns and arches. It provides shelter to pedestrians (and tourists) from the scorching tropical sun and rain. To help keep the city pedestrian-friendly, it makes good sense to preserve this ubiquitous feature of the shophouses on our streets.

While old shophouses are coming down, Hong Kong has taken the initiative to preserve their last remaining ones, considered rare and, therefore, worthy of conservation. In Hong Kong where land is scarce, most old buildings have been demolished and rebuilt. In Sept 2008, the Urban Renewal Authority of China-Hong Kong announced plans to preserve and revitalize ten 1920s shophouses with five-foot-ways on Shanghai Street, Mong Kok for their historical value; the project is expected to be completed in 2015.

What about Ipoh? Do we only begin to preserve them when there are only a few left? We hope not. We must not repeat the mistake other cities have made.

The once lovely shophouses reduced to a rubble.

Applying the rules of conservation: reduce, re-use and re-cycle, old shophouses on our streets are a “green” resource. When we conserve our built environment -buildings, greens and space – we retain the history of our city.  Pre-war shophouses like those on Jalan Chung On Siew are (were) an asset. They could be successfully re-used for boutique hotels, eateries, offices, and other businesses. But alas, their heritage value: cultural, historical and aesthetic, are not understood and appreciated. The authorities were too eager to approve re-development, demolition included, when they should be protecting our common legacies for posterity.

Fall of the last wall...going...



In an ethnically and culturally diverse country such as ours, we should retain our old shophouses for the benefit of tourism and local pride. They are the history and the living evidence of that glorious past, a natural attraction unique to tourists. There is nothing to lose but much to be gained through preservation and conservation.

(1) The Town That Tin Built, The Straits Time Press, 1962
Kinta Valley: Pioneering Malaysia’s Modern Development


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