Mooncakes are edible works of art. Traditionally, the top crust of the dense Chinese pastries are decorated with geometric patterns or auspicious messages, such as the characters for “harmony” or “longevity.” Usually baked during the Mid-Autumn Festival, people send the sweet cakes to relatives and friends as a gesture of respect. So to find one that declares “Fuck you!” is, well, unheard of.
One bakery in Hong Kong, however, is selling expletive-covered mooncakes like hotcakes. Wah Yee Tang Cake Shop, a family business that turns 35 this year, recently put them on its menu, along with several other fiery options. Patrons can pick up handmade treats stamped with messages such as “No withdrawal, no dismissal” (不撤不散), “Hongkonger” (香港人), and “Freedom hi” (自由西). Aside from being beautiful (and no doubt, tasty), they are meant to inspire protestors fighting a controversial extradition bill.
While Hong Kong is semi-autonomous, the bill would allow for the transfer of suspected criminals there to face trial in mainland China. Not only would this undermine Hong Kong’s legal independence, but it could also lead to a surge in politically motivated prosecutions. Although Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam announced the bill dead as of last week, it has not yet been formally withdrawn. Massive demonstrations have drawn millions to Hong Kong’s streets, even as clashes with police turned violent.
Wah Yee Tang hadn’t originally set out to participate in the ongoing protests, explains marketing director Naomi Suen. But the mooncakes became an enticing way to contribute to the political discourse.
“We didn’t make these mooncakes on purpose to join the fight,” says the 33-year-old, who runs the store with her mother. “We made them for fun to share with friends.” But then pictures of the mooncakes made the rounds on Facebook. Now, Suen says, they’ve “become a hit.”
Last Monday, Suen decided to add the anti-extradition mooncakes to the bakery’s regular offerings of traditional buns, sugarless cookies, and chiffon cakes. They have sold out every day of the week, and Wah Yee Tang is working to fulfill thousands of orders. A portion of the proceeds go to a fund that supports protestors.
So far, the “No withdrawal, no dismissal” mooncake, made with red bean paste with egg yolk, is the bestseller, with its message that if the bill is not withdrawn, then the protestors will not disperse. Patrons can also choose from 11 other messages available in six flavors. “We are together and support each other” (一齊撐) is for those craving a paste of green tea and red bean. “Filibuster” (鬥長命) offers a taste of the traditional five-nuts Chinese filling. Other phrases are more tongue-in-cheek, such as “Totally irrelevant, totally insane” (九唔搭八), which is how Hong Kong singer Kenny Bee described protestors. When a policeman yelled “Reporter, my ass” (記你老母) at a reporter covering the demonstrations, the phrase became a rallying cry (especially since journalists have faced violence from the Hong Kong police). Now, it decorates a white lotus seed paste cake. “We want to make this design to show our respect to journalists,” Suen says.
The spunky mooncakes shouldn’t surprise Wah Yee Tang’s regulars. When the bakery isn’t putting out traditional Cantonese pastries, it’s making special occasion cookies, from bunny-shaped treats to Hello Kitty-inspired ones. The more adult-oriented desserts actually debuted last year as playful novelties, when Suen sold cookies of impudent cats pointing their middle fingers, adorned with notes such as “Fuck you, HAHA.”
“We noticed many Hongkongese are very stressed and disappointed with the overall situation of the city,” Suen says of that initial batch—amuse-bouches for the later protest cakes. She now offers mooncakes decorated with the same cat, accompanied with the character 屌, or “fuck.”
With these candid cakes, Wah Yee Tang joins a small history of activists who use the mooncake as a medium. In 2012, the artist Wilson Shieh designed mooncakes to raise legal funds for protestors convicted of unlawful assembly after a vigil marking the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre turned violent. Sold at a Shanghai art gallery, the cakes read, “Anti-rent increase” and “Fight the landlords.” Two years later, participants of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong made mooncakes that read “Occupy Central” (佔領中環), the name of the pro-democracy campaign that launched four months of street sit-ins in pursuit of free elections.
Perhaps these activists were paying homage to an ancient folktale. One story goes that mooncakes helped the Chinese overthrow the ruling Mongols during the Yuan Dynasty. A military counsel known as Liu Bowen rallied men to use mooncakes to hide slips of paper calling for rebellion. The organization led to a successful uprising, resulting in the establishment of the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century.
Being less covert, Wah Yee Tang’s bold mooncakes have already drawn criticism. As the South China Morning Post reports, pro-police Hongkongers have called for a boycott of the bakery, arguing that “the products here will lead youngsters astray.”
But Suen isn’t backing down. The bakery will only stop producing protest pastries when mooncake season is over—that is, when the Mid-Autumn Festival ends in September. Until then, churlish cats and encouraging cakes will fly off the shelves—fuel, in a way, for a still-burning fire.
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