Eight things you didn’t know about the Mid-Autumn Festival in Philadelphia’s Chinatown


The Mid-Autumn Festival returns to the streets of Chinatown on Saturday, a live revival of the big holiday celebration after two years of online events. The 27th annual festival begins at noon, with musical performances, carnival games and the ever-popular mooncake tasting contest. It also comes amid uncertainty, evident even in the festival’s logo, which depicts protesters in Chinatown demanding an end to anti-Asian hate crimes – and plans for a new Sixers basketball arena nearby. “8” being the luckiest number in Chinese culture – its pronunciation is similar to the word “prosperity” – we bring you eight things you didn’t know about the Mid-Autumn Festival.

The festival was started by a child. In the fall of 1996, 13-year-old Andy Zeng was saddened by what he saw in Chinatown – elderly people missing the traditions of their homeland and parents too overworked to spend holidays with their children. Zeng and his friends raised $400 in donations from skeptical business owners, then held the first festival in the parking lot of Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church. That night, an illuminated parade of traditional handmade lanterns moved through the neighborhood and a tradition was born.

They’re not dragons, they’re dogs. Those big, dancing animals with satin bodies, gaping mouths and blinking eyes? Yes, they are dogs. Foo Dogs to be exact. They are also called lions because they perform the lion dance. But the dragon, when it appears, is a long, thin creature, held aloft on poles by a dozen or more people. The dragon is always on the move, always in pursuit of the pearl that lingers just beyond its reach.

The Mid-Autumn Festival has more than one name. It is also called the Moon Festival. And it’s been celebrated in Asia for thousands of years, usually on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, when the moon is at its brightest. It’s similar to Thanksgiving, a day when families come together, celebrate their affection for each other, and gaze up at the night sky in search of Chang’e, the goddess who was banished from heaven on the moon.

It is no coincidence that the festival takes place in the street. In 2000, a six-month protest blocked city plans to build a Phillies stadium in Chinatown, a victory for a community that for decades had lost land to public works projects such as the Vine Freeway Street and the Pennsylvania Convention Center. After the demonstration, the leaders of the sponsor Asian Americans United decided to move the festival to the streets, wanting the event to present itself as a political act, as a physical and cultural recovery of space.

The winner of the mooncake eating contest receives $1 million in cash. I laugh. Usually the prize is a baseball cap that says “Mooncake Eating Champion”. But if you’ve never tried mooncakes, now is your chance. Like the holiday they honour, they only come once a year, their thin outer crusts containing fillings of lotus, eggs, dates or bean paste. Some mooncakes are ornate, others simple, but all are meant to be shared.

The animation for the first festival featured a child squealing a melody on his violin. No more. Since the days of those early handmade events, entertainment has expanded to the expert, including performances by Peter Tang, a virtuoso of the erhu, the Chinese two-string fiddle, and the Philadelphia Chinese Opera Society, led by Shuyuan Li, a fourth-generation Beijing opera master.

About 5,000 people usually attend. It’s probably an undercount. Asian Americans are the nation’s fastest growing population, rising 81% between 2000 and 2019 to 19 million. In Philadelphia, the Asian population has nearly tripled since 1990, from 43,522 to around 120,000 today. Asian Americans now make up 8% of the city’s residents, up from less than 3% in 1990. Of course, the festival attracts people of all ethnicities, and everyone is welcome.

It’s a door. Don’t call it an arch. The magnificent Chinese Gate spanning the street that forms the backdrop to the festival was dedicated in 1984 to honor Philadelphia’s sister city relationship with Tianjin, China. In ancient times, Chinese gates were the entry and exit points to walled cities. When the walls fell, the gates remained, used as symbolic entrances to parks, neighborhoods and towns. The Friendship Gate at 10th and Arch weighs 88 tons and is just under 42 feet tall.

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