Sunday, September 15, 2013

Shine On, Autumn Moon Festival

San Francisco's Chinatown Merchants Association started the Autumn Moon Festival in 1991, two years after the 1989 earthquake destroyed the Embarcadero Freeway, which had funneled out-of-town tourists into Chinatown's Grant Avenue for decades.

Twenty-plus years later, the festival has taken on its own identity which is as distinct as the Haight Street Fair or the Folsom Street Fair, and what's charming is that it's targeted to Chinese locals rather than gringo tourists, though everyone is welcome.

The Mid-Autumn Festival has been China's harvest celebration for centuries. Every culture has its own version of fall harvest rituals. The United States has Thanksgiving, with its uneasy mixture of Puritan traditions and Epicurean excess. The Chinese version seems more sensible and matriarchal, with moon worship involving a good, immortal woman who flew away from danger to the moon. (Click here for an unusually good Wikipedia history of the Festival and its variations throughout Asia.) It's also a time for courting and sensuality and finding a partner to stay warm with for the winter. Lanterns have become one of the trademark symbols of the festival and so has the Mooncake (above, photo by James Parr) which has evolved into an expensive status dessert that one gives as gifts. The Asian versions of this festival are usually nocturnal celebrations, and many countries such as Hong Kong have an official holiday on the day following the appointed evening after everyone has stayed up all night.

On San Francisco's crowded, narrow Grant Street this weekend there were comics, emcees and entertainers spread out from California Street to Broadway, speaking almost exclusively in Chinese, either in Mandarin or Cantonese.

Since elderly Chinese women in lines for freebies are famously aggressive, there were emergency tape queues set up along the sidewalks leading to booths for casino giveaways and Chase Bank, who must have been giving out the best tschotskes because their line was the longest.

There were also plenty of cheesy sales booths, and the laughter rippling from the two guys above in their sample loungers was infectious.

Most of the booths were selling the same cheap, colorful junk that the tourist shops on Grant Street have been peddling for decades, but there were a few standouts like the bonsai booth above.

What was most interesting was the people watching. Second and third generation Chinese Americans are some of the most interesting characters in the world right now, brilliantly navigating their way through the traditional elder worshiping culture of their parents while also living in larger Asian and Western contemporary cultures. They feel like the future.

James Parr above was an incongruous looking booth worker at the corner of Jackson and Grant. James was raised in China and currently works in marketing for an Asian company that was selling mooncakes among other treats at the fair. I envied his inclusion in a traditionally insular culture.

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