A savory symbol of family reunion has been dragged into Hong Kong-China politics

Protest pastries.
Protest pastries.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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Exactly a week from now, on Friday Sept. 13, Asian communities the world over will be celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival. They’ll likely enjoy a family dinner, gaze up at the full moon, light colorful paper lanterns, and slice into mooncakes they’ve been gifted. And perhaps more so than in years past, they might talk politics.

Shaped like an oversized hockey puck and filled with thick lotus seed paste, the sturdy mooncake pastry is believed to have been used by Ming revolutionaries to deliver secret messages to orchestrate an uprising to overthrow the Mongols at the end of the Yuan dynasty in the 14th century.

Fast forward to 2019, and mooncakes are again being used to spread a revolutionary message. In July, several weeks into the protests that kicked off in early June in opposition to an extradition bill, the decades-old family owned Wah Yee Tang bakery in Hong Kong started stamping its mooncakes with slogans of the protest movement. These include the not entirely family-friendly “journalist your mum” and “freedom cunt”—insults flung at protesters by police officers, and which protesters quickly re-appropriated as rallying cries—as well as more innocuous ones like “Hong Konger,” “add oil,” and “Be water.”  The subversive pastries were such a hit that the shop at one point had to stop taking orders.

Another mooncake maker has been less lucky in the run-up to the Mid-Autumn Festival. Taipan Bread and Cake is a large bakery chain in Hong Kong, known for a pristine white mooncake, and it got swept up in political controversy after it was revealed that a company director had written Facebook posts in support of the city’s protesters.

In an article on Monday (Sept. 2), Communist Party’s mouthpiece, People’s Daily, denounced the director, Garic Kwok, for “supporting activities of those dressed in black,” accusing the cakes of being filled with “bad thought.” China Daily echoed a similar sentiment the next day, noting there was a “price to pay for angering mainland consumers” with “improper words.” Taipan’s official online store was soon taken off Alibaba’s Tmall, and mooncakes were pulled from supermarket shelves. Kwok, who is also the son of Taipan’s founder, deleted and apologized for his Facebook posts, but it appeared that the damage had been done. By Thursday (Sept. 5), a mainland Chinese importer of Taipan goods said it had no choice but to destroy a huge stock of mooncakes after retailers sent them back en masse.

Taipan is just the latest in a long string of companies that have incurred the wrath of Chinese state media and consumers for having allegedly offended political sensibilities. Cathay Pacific, the embattled flagship carrier of Hong Kong, has faced similar pressures, only on a much larger scale. Other foreign companies that have been singled out in recent weeks include Coach, Versace, Zara, Asics, and Swarovski.