A Belated Mid-Autumn Festival


This short essay is for my foreign friends from italki who are curious about my belated Mid-Autumn Party.  This year, the Lantern Festival falls on a Thursday.  Unfortunately, it is not a public holiday for everyone and so no choice but to have a belated celebration on  the following Saturday.  I had invited over a hundred people but thank goodness not everyone showed up at the same time, otherwise my place would be a wee bit overcrowded.

For those interested how a typical U.S. West Coast lifestyle is like, especially in Los Angeles, we love to entertain in our homes.  It does not matter if your place is huge or not.  I always say, you can always entertain a few close friends even in a closet.  Others say, they live with their parents, so I countered, what’s wrong with inviting your family to join in the fun?  If they don’t like it, they can go and watch a double-feature movie in the theatres or just sneak into another one.  Others would give me cultural reasons not to.  To me, it is just an excuse.  For me, to entertain in one’s home is to show your warmth and sincerity.

What you see in the movies are either the super-rich or celebrities throwing lavish parties to impress or to get connections.  In the ordinary lives of us mere mortals, the most common thing to do is a potluck.  This won’t put a strain on the host and there will always a great variety of food, dessert and drinks for all to enjoy.  My party started at 1 p.m., we did a potluck lunch with people bringing Chinese BBQ meats, Jewish quiches, sushi, Indian samosas, lamb bryani and American staples like baked beans and corn on the cob.  Even though I don’t drink, there is always plenty of  wine and beer flowing around.  There is only a friend in the entire group who normally brings hard liquor such as vodka, whiskey etc.  Of course, the Asian group preferred hot Chinese tea and most would  gyrate towards coffee of any kind.  There was so much to eat that we didn’t have to go out or have takeout food in the evening.

As night fell, more friends arrived.  The fire pit was fired up and people gathered around it like a bunch of moths circling a light.  As the social atmosphere began to mellow, everyone started enjoying the warmth and conversations became more interesting.  I’m just being nice.  Nothing is more salacious than gossip about people you know!  That is what makes any party swing.  This time around, plenty of people brought dessert.  This was what I told them to bring if they intended to come later in the evening.  However, they were free to choose whatever their favorites were.  There was a symbolic gesture of a small box of moon cake.  After all this is its festival namesake.  Not many people like to eat them anyway.

My new toy, the fire pit, was the main hit at the party, followed closely by another group with musical talents.  They crowded around the piano.  People sang and people played.  Drinks continued to flow unceasingly and everyone had a great time.  Thank goodness, my neighbours were also having their parties, albeit not for the same reason.  So everyone is not worried about someone calling the police because of the loud noises that the neighbourhood is making.  Of course, I was making the most noise.  My voice boomed into the night to ensure that everything is picture perfect.  I had to make sure that everyone felt welcome and had enough to eat but not too much drinking!  This is because drunk driving is a serious offence in California and also I don’t want my friends to get hurt or get into trouble.

Finally by midnight, most had left.  However a few close friends remained and we sat winding down by the fire pit for some quiet exchanges.  By now the autumn moon had risen high up into the sky and over the obstructed bamboo skyline.   The place was still and a gentle breeze rose, sweeping the flames of the fire pit.  We gazed into the fire as we were mesmerized by the flickering tongues of the flames.  Each of us rocking in our chairs in different tempos as different thoughts were marching in our minds.  One of us suddenly recited,

金風梳月影, The golden breeze brushing the shadows of the moon,
玉露點秋香. Jade dew touching the fragrance of autumn.
月明心緒寧, The moon is bright and my mood is at ease,
徘徊昨夜夢. Lingering in dreams of last night.

I see someone was in his poetic mood. On the surface, the poem is innocuous as can be.  The “golden breeze” and “jade dew” are symbols of autumn; a poem describing an autumn scene with the poet’s feelings.  After a while in deep thought, I began to suspect something is amiss.  “Autumn fragrance” can also be a name of a girl, especially the name of maid in this traditional Chinese story (唐伯虎點秋香) of how a flirty scholar is trying to seduce her.  Oh ho!  Crouched in poetic imagery, is my friend trying to brag about his last night’s conquest? But before I could go further, another chimed in a poem of his own.

春風笑少年, The spring breeze laughing at youth
夏花無限嬌. Unlimited is the beauty of summer flowers.
秋雪豈能有, How can there be snow in autumn?
冬月醉長夜. The winter’s moon, drunk in the night.
今宵百花樓, Tonight at the House of Hundred Blooms,
明日水東流. Gone tomorrow, like the waters flowing east.

For a long time, there was silence in the air except the creaking of the rockers.  For a long time I wondered why the mood had changed even though I detected a euphemism of brothel in the last poem.  Finally 2 a.m. approached and everyone started to get up giving the excuse that it was time to part and thanked me for a wonderful party.  I was tired too and called it a night.  The next day, I recalled last night’s poems and began to write them down.  As I was translating the poem, suddenly from the written form, I found the answer to my last night’s question.

Reading the first two columns from left to right and from the top to bottom, the characters from the first four lines form two Chinese phrases, “Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter” and “Wind, Flower, Snow Moon”.  The first phrase is just a description of the seasons of the year but in Chinese can symbolically mean the four stages of a person’s life; his youth, his peak, his declining years and his final days.  The second phrase originally meant the poetic beauty of nature.  However, now degenerates to a description of having a dissolute life of wine and women!

No wonder last night’s atmosphere abruptly changed.  I am sure one of my friend was laughing at the age of the bragger.  I guess those two won’t be seeing each other for quite a while.

Jeff, Jeff, Jeff… You are too slow in catching on things of this calibre.  Now you know the reason of this notebook entry.


A Lament On Mid Autumn Festival


As of this writing, it is about 11pm on a Thursday night.  The autumn moon is hanging brightly  above a cloudless sky of Los Angeles which I call home.  Since this is the US, unfortunately, there is no holiday for us.  I envy the long weekend holidays in those countries that officially celebrate this delightful festival known also as the “Lantern Festival”.

It doesn’t matter. I’m going to play hookie tomorrow and follow Hong Kong’s example.  This is my third entry on this festival since I joined italki.  How time flies.  Unlike the past two years, there was no gathering on this actual day of the festival.  Just all by myself, treating myself to something good under the bamboos and viewing the bright circular orb up in the cloudless sky.

My memories harkened me back to my days of old; with lanterns in our hands, my siblings and I would explore the darkness within the safety confines of our garden.  It was one of the rare occasions that we were allowed to venture out into the night and not having to go to bed at the appointed hour; to which we thought, was ridiculously early.  In the daytime, the large garden (to our eyes) was a friend but in the night, a scary stranger and yet we could not resist. In trepidation, we surged onwards into the darkness. And yet we hoped that some monster would jump out at us and frightened the shit out of us!  Yes, those were the simple thrills of childhood.

Then, inevitably, sometime into our foraging, one of us would trip and the  lantern caught fire from the lighted candles within.  This was our biggest thrill of the night since no monster had ever come out.  Of course the one whose lantern now laid in ashes would be in tears.  Our rambunctious actions would cause a faraway shout from grandmama telling us to be quiet as she prepared the table with offerings to the moon and its inhabitants.  She had cooked a special dish of conches or some kind of shellfish with spiral shells.  Of course, I would never eat such strange looking stuff.  The feast will begin just after midnight.  Mother would be the ever dutiful wife managing my father’s activities with his buddies or with the relatives and keeping an eye on things in the front.  Not to mention is there was the ever present sound of mahjong tiles with an occasional cry from the winning woman or curses from the losers.  Not to be outdone, the men too have their act in their poker games.

Such is the life of a mid-autumn festival of the yesteryears.  As a matter of fact, it is the same for all festivals with the adults.  Us, the children just have to invent more imaginative games to entertain ourselves.  It was a good time when the huge clan would descend and congregate at Grandfather’s house.  Cousins were like strangers whom we knew by face.  Even though we lived in the same town but because of different schools we attended, we hardly ever saw each other except during these clan festivities.  When Grandfather was alive, all have to make obeisance and the mandatory pilgrimage to the ancestral house.

Most of the people in my memories, well, are now just memories.  Some had gone to the great beyond, others no longer in touch; for our clan is as factious as China’s Age of Warring States.  When the grandparents had moved on, the later generations no longer saw the need of such gatherings anymore.  No more emperor to please, for each is now a warlord of his own realm.  Sad isn’t it?  As for my siblings, some had married and now we lived in different cities.  Though we are close, some are technophobic and even refused to be on Facebook.

Anyway, here I am by myself.  My good buddies?  Some are back in their ancestral countries; some on business and others don’t have the courage as I did to play hookie.  Alone? Yes, physically but not so mentally; for memories are good companions.  They lull, they cajole and even play tricks on your mind.

The wind is cool but my body is comfortably warm as I have been sipping hot Chinese tea by myself. Rocking back and forth on my deckchair, in sway and nostalgia, I view the moon with a different frame of mind tonight.  In some ways both of us are the same.  One high above in the sky and nary a cloud to be seen and the other, far down on this earth, surrounded by quietude but with one half empty pot of hot tea…

Out from the dusty corridors of my mind, I hear the voice of grandmama relating the lunar tales of yore.  How the Fairy Chang-O went to live on the moon.  Then there is the immortal woodcutter forever chopping down a self-healing osmanthus tree.  With each blow at the tree, the wound would recover immediately.  Like Sisyphus, he was punished for his hubris or laziness.  Let us not forget too, the other lunar inhabitants in the form of the Jade Rabbit and the Three-Legged Toad.  Thank you grandmama, for you have enriched my life by telling me all these and other wonderful tales.  You have opened my imagination and let me enter into a world of splendiferous beings.

Then I espied on the tin cover of the moon cake packaging, there in her bosom, was Chang-O’s Jade Rabbit being caressed lambently by her against the backdrop of the bright full moon.  New thoughts came flooding and replacing my memories of yesteryears and casting them back into the dusty corridors of my mind.  The moonlight was bright enough for me and with a pen, to scribble down my thoughts on a piece of paper…

竹下深坐嘗月餅,Under the bamboo, I sat deep in thought and tasting moon cakes,
風吹樹搖落英雨.The wind blows; the trees sway and flowers fall like rain.
廣寒嫦娥一仙子,In the Great Cold Palace, is the Fairy Chang-O,
懷擁玉兔非郎君.Caressing the Jade Rabbit in her bosom; no lover it can ever be.

With this, I can now tap-tap on my laptop…