What's the big deal about mooncakes?

What's the big deal about mooncakes?

The traditional pastry is everywhere during the Mid-Autumn Festival, but few actually get eaten
Share the mooncake calories -- it's good for business.

Mooncakes: can't avoid 'em, can't eat 'em.

The traditional pastry eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival can have up to 1,000 calories per piece and most Chinese people admit that they don't even like the flavor.

According to Green Power, each Hong Kong family bought three boxes of mooncakes on average last year, but they discarded a total of 2.5 million mooncakes.

As CNNGo China editor Tracy You puts it: "It's just something I do because I'm Chinese, not because I like them."

So why is Hong Kong and mainland China caught up in mooncake madness every year during the Mid-Autumn Festival?  

Come the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, bakeries set up their special mooncake counters just to service customers seeking a box of the pastries. 

This year, the festival falls on September 30, and the mooncake ads started appearing at least a month before.

Also on CNN: To hell with traditions, mooncake marketing on a high

A time for giving

mooncakesMooncakes by Hermès' Petit H brand are a culturally sensitive corporate gift. "Ninety percent of people who buy mooncakes give them to others," says Karlson Wong, head of sales and marketing at Kee Wah Bakery, one of Hong Kong's oldest original bakeries.

"It's an opportunity to show respect and build relationships."

Founded in 1938 by Wong's grandfather, Wong Yip Wing, Kee Wah made its name selling traditional Chinese wedding pastries.

Now they also make mooncakes, various Western and Chinese snacks, a Hong Kong souvenir series, preserved sausages and other seasonal items like dumplings for the Tuen Ng Festival.

The mooncakes account for a third of their annual revenue. It used to rake in even more.

"Back in my grandfather's time, they only had to do a couple of Mid-Autumn Festivals to make enough to open a new store," says Wong. 

"Some bakeries relied completely on the Mid-Autumn rush to make back everything for the year."

Ninety percent of people who buy mooncakes give them to others

- Karlson Wong, sales and marketing director, Kee Wah Bakery

A traditional time for family members to gather together, the Mid-Autumn Festival has a unique gift-giving culture.

Although gifts and "lucky" envelopes filled with cash are exchanged during Chinese New Year, these have to be accompanied by personal visits to people's homes.

Not so for Mid-Autumn Festival. Gifts can be sent by mail, so it's convenient and non-confrontational. 

This opens up a whole new world of opportunity to pay respect to many people in a wide network all at once.

Also on CNN: The mooncake challenge

Cracking down on cake 

In recent years, the mooncake business has exploded in mainland China.

Boxes worth upward of RMB 2,000 (US$318) are snapped up by business people eager to bet their business relations on a cake.

Expensive mooncake packages once included high-grade tea leaves, bottles of alcohol or hidden envelopes of cash or coupons for luxury goods, some might say riding the fine line between gifting and bribing.

This year, mainland authorities have strictly enforced a mooncakes-only rule on mooncake packages. All items that are not mooncakes are banned from gift packs that are labelled "mooncake."

So, that RMB 2,480 box of mooncakes from Ganso bakery is actually just filled with mooncakes, 11 pieces at RMB 220 a piece.

Such high prices have given the mooncake culture a bad rap in some quarters.

Corporate mooncake exchange is seen as wasteful and ostentatious, but there's no stopping "Big Mooncake."

"Mooncakes have been a big deal for as long as I can remember," says the 31-year-old Wong. "Now Mid-Autumn is more crazy than Chinese New Year for our company and clients plan half-a-year ahead for mooncakes."

After traveling around the world on a fistful of dollars, Zoe returns to Hong Kong, where she grew up, to discover and write about all the inspiring stuff that happens here on a daily basis.

Read more about Zoe Li