HONG KONG: At the back of her tiny shop, Hong Kong baker Naomi Suen pulls out a fresh tray of mooncakes – each one sporting popular slogans from recent pro-democracy protests.
The cakes are a contemporary political twist on a gift traditionally given during the annual mid-autumn festival at a time when Hong Kong is convulsing with unprecedented unrest.
Bakeries at this time of year are packed with boxes of the dense pastries, commonly filled with a heavy sweet concoction of lotus seed and egg yolks.
The tops often have intricate Chinese character designs detailing the brand or the filling inside.
But Suen’s mooncakes have different kinds of messages printed on them such as “Hong Kong People”, “No withdrawal, no dispersal” and “Be Water”.
All are chants heard on Hong Kong’s streets in the last three months, as huge crowds come out to protest eroding freedoms after two decades of rule by Beijing.
The last phrase – “Be Water” – is a reference to local kung fu legend Bruce Lee’s philosophy of being unpredictable, a style the leaderless protest has adopted with relish during its frequent street battles with the police.
Suen, who used to be a fashion designer, inherited the bakery from her grandfather.
Over the years she has gained a reputation for producing eye-catching and often gently subversive mooncakes that particularly appeal to younger customers.
The cakes are often given to family members during the festival and Suen said she hoped the protest messages would “spread happiness” and encourage understanding between different generations.
“These mooncakes might bind the younger and older generations into something larger and give strength for the movement,” she told AFP.
Festival themed protests
The mid-autumn festival, which begins Friday night, is one of the most important celebrations in the Chinese calendar.
The legend behind it revolves around a beautiful woman called Chang E, who drank an elixir of immortal life to keep it out of the hands of a rival of her husband.
It caused her to ascend to the moon, leaving her distraught husband on earth. He took her favourite foods to an altar and offered them as a sacrifice to her, a ritual then adopted by local people.
Mooncakes are a must-give item because they symbolise the full moon.
But they also have a semi-political history.
According to a 13th century folk tale, the treats were used by Chinese people to smuggle messages as they resisted the Mongol Empire.
Adopting the revolutionary past of mooncakes, Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters are planning a variety of mid-autumn festival themed protests on Friday evening, including a rally on two of the city’s most famous hills – the Peak and Lion’s Rock – where they will shine lights, hold lanterns and sing protest songs.
Back at Naomi Suen’s bakery, locals were queuing in the summer heat to get their hands on the political mooncakes.
“I’m buying dozens so I can share them with my friends and family,” customer Joyce Lam told AFP.
But wading into Hong Kong’s now deeply polarised political debate is risky for any business.
Suen says she has received pushback, especially via Facebook, from supporters of the government and those opposed to the protests.
But she shrugged off the criticism.
“It’s only for now,” she said. “Hong Kong has always been a free place. I’m not committing a crime so I don’t understand why I should be afraid”.