Every year on the 15th day of the eight month in the Lunar Calendar, with the Moon at this fullest, 1.2 billion people of the Chinese world celebrate the Mid Autumn Festival with moon cakes.
These small round cakes, rich with a flaky crust and a sweet filling, usually made of lotus paste, have been around for 700 years. The shape resembles the full moon; it is a must delicacy for the festival that celebrates the Moon and the many legend attached to it. These rich dense cakes have high calories; are not meant to be eaten as desserts; many of them are not intended for personal consumption but to be sent as thank you gifts to relatives, clients, friends and supporters. The branding of the Moon cakes is a symbol of status and respect in modern China.
My father is the eldest son of the family and our grandma lives with us throughout her old age; so the entire family and its extended members would send packs of moon cakes during the festival, a gesture to say “you are on my mind,” and an expression of respect to family and elders. I have grown up with an abundance of these round cakes; plus my father would buy some cute piggy cakes caged in plastic baskets; tasted just like those western ginger bread-men bread to add fun to the festival for the children.
Moon Cakes are big business, the bakeries would only have to work for a month leading up to the festival; and the revenue and profit will last them for the entire year. So when 1.2 billion people celebrate this festival with moon cakes, how big indeed is the business?
Moon Cake, Moon Cake, who is the fairest of them all?
First of all, retailers, bakeries and hotels churn out their own holiday pastries; bearing their own specialty. One may think that often times the flavour of the moon cake is all-important and they influence buying decisions. But in today’s affluent cities in Asia; presentation and creative concept have been the most differentiating factor in the choice of which brand of moon cakes to buy. For example last year in my annual pilgrimage to the Moon Cake sales exhibition in a shopping mall in downtown Kuala Lumpur; I bought the ones from Inter-Continental Hotel because they have an innovative LV bag to keep the cakes; I bought them and still keep the bag. Today I went to the same fair in Kuala Lumpur to see if I would be surprised.
The same Mid Valley Mega Mall is a bit crowded; and the decoration of the setting is not as elegant as last year, there are general signs of fatigue in Malaysian retail promotions because there are just too many festivals in this multi racial country. There were some 15 brands of Moon Cakes competing for customers. A lawyer who is there to buy them as gifts to his clients was undecided; he was looking at the Concord Hotel store. We stroke up a conversation. He observed, “ Buying moon cakes today is not about the cakes; the bank gives me business so I present moon cakes to the staff at different departments. Those girls in the office fight over the moon cake gift boxes, I asked them how is the moon cake,” he shrugged his shoulder, “ these women. Go gaga over the gift boxes, but nobody seem to have much to say about the moon cakes; I wonder they actually ate them.”
This year my winner is the Concord Hotel (pic 2) The creative team of the hotel packed moon cakes into a nice wooden gift box, with a laser cut classical Chinese design on four sides (so good to use classical designs as they are elegant and costs nothing because they are do old that they are already in the public domain). The gift box is actually designed to be a light box! The package design is beautiful, classically elegant — and the box will be used as a table lamp or light box after it served the duty of its first life as a gift box” Concord Hotel was doing roaring business while the other stalls looked on; in the marketing of Moon Cakes, again it has brought out the truth of good design gives the product its competitive edge!
Shangri-La is one of Asia’s pioneer and top sellers of luxury moon cakes. Shangri-La’s design is always classical and China Chic. This year it uses a box with embroidered motifs, one can tell the Shangri-La stamp on it; it is quintessentially elegant China Chic. Normal moon cakes by street shop will go for USD3; but for these well packaged moon cakes with a cultural story; each moon cake can sell for as much as USD8-10. Now you believe why I said, “Culture is good business,” Infuse culture into the moon cakes, and you can sell triple the price! The competition is not in the quality of the moon cake, but also in the depth and elegance of the culture the packaging communicates.
Luxury hotels are doing well; chains like the Mandarin Oriental, St. Regis and Hilton have all become experts at catering to the tastes and desires of affluent Chinese in mainland China and the urban cities in Greater China, for whom moon cake season is all about gift-giving and status. For Asia’s Chinese jet-setting crowd, nothing sends good wishes for parent, client or colleague’s prosperity like handing over a box of exquisitely packaged moon-cakes of exotic flavour, from a five star hotel.
Moon Cakes – A Multi Million Business
According to report in EdAge[i], Shangri-La’s moon cake sales already top USD$35 million in 2010, “ Hong Kong based Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts chain, is known as the Rolls Royce of Asia’s moon cake. Shangri-La has turned moon cakes into a valuable marketing tool and a sweet source of revenue. Much of that moon cake revenue comes from the hotel’s properties in Asian countries like Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, as well as Hong Kong and China.
According to EdAge, the Shangri-La, owned by Malaysian-Chinese businessman Robert Kwok, has cornered the moon cake market through its canny understanding of Chinese culture and a solid distribution network. Shangri-La has over 30 properties in Greater China, covering just about every first and second-tier city in the mainland. Starting in August, the lobbies of hotels from Beihai to Zhongshan are filled with locals placing orders for boxes of moon cakes. Frequent patrons also know that Shangri-La’s fine cuisine Chinese restaurant, “Shang Palace” is one of the best around the region.
Mid Autumn festival brings a busy sale season; for he chain’s flagship Island Shangri-La hotel in Hong Kong, the sales can reached over 10,000 in each season. The Gift hampers with eight moon cakes usually will have fine Chinese tea, home-made X.O. sauce, pistachios, honey, bamboo pith, chocolates and a bottle of Champagne – all for a price of USD $256.
It is learnt that the hotel puts enormous energy into its moon cake business. Each hotel decides which flavorrs it will offer based on local taste preferences; and each hotel will launch individual promotion campaigns.
New flavors have helped tradition flourish
While there is much creativity going into the packaging of the moon cakes; the chefs are not letting the designers have all the limelight. The origin of moon cakes dates back centuries when early Chinese offered sacrifices to the sun in spring and the moon in autumn. The holiday has been officially celebrated since the Song Dynasty in 420, and folk stories tell of Ming revolutionaries who used moon cakes to carry secret messages in their bid to overthrow Mongolian rulers during the Yuan dynasty. In the late 1300s, following 97 years of Mongolian rule in Northern China (the Yuan Dynasty), Han Chinese rebels cooked up a last-ditch effort to drive out the invaders.
During the Mid-Autumn Festival, the rebels distributed hundreds of moon cakes to local families under the pretense of celebrating the holiday and the longevity of Mongolian rule. The Mongolians didn’t eat moon cakes, so they didn’t get the memo hidden inside the cakes: Kill the Mongols on the 15th of the eighth lunar month. On the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival, thousands of villagers rose up to chase the invaders out of China. The rebel leader, Zhu Yuan Zhang, became the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty
Traditional moon cakes are imprinted with the Chinese characters for “longevity” or “harmony” and stuffed with red lotus seed paste, red bean paste or black sesame paste alongside a salted egg yolk that symbolizes the full moon. Today the cakes are imprinted with the logo of the establishment making them.
Growing affluence and yearning for diversity have prompted and inspire bakers to cater to the culinary curiosity of modern consumers with creative ingredients. Gourmet moon cakes can cost hundreds of dollars for limited-edition packages flavored with dried scallops, goose liver, red wine, beef with scallions, seaweed, truffles with bacon, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, marshmallows, bird’s nest, ginger and many other exotic ingredients including that quintessentially Malaysian king of fruits, the creamy and rich MaoshanWang (猫山王) durian.
New flavours have helped the moon cake tradition flourish as China’s society modernises and integrate with the world. Most consumers today find the old-fashioned kind, which are chewy and dense, about as desirable as the unwanted fruitcake many Americans exchange at Christmas. Inventive flavours and eye-catching packaging have helped the treats remain fashionable in a culture that seems to change by the hour. A nice innovation in the recent years is the snow skin series, which uses a rice flour skin, chilled and refrigerated and not baked. The snow skin moon cakes, first started in Hongkong have now become a big hit with consumers, especially young women.
Yang Yue Bing (洋月饼）or Western Moon Cakes.
Western retailers are becoming Chinese as well. The two most active ones are Starbucks and ice cream brand Haagen-Dazs. The “Yang Yue Bing“ ( 洋月饼) or Western Moon Cakes produces moon cakes made of macadamia nut, chocolate and cookies & cream ice cream with a mango sorbet “yolk” in the case of Haagen-Dazs, and Starbucks uses green tea and chocolate as flavours. Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel teamed up with Lindt to produce a line of chocolate moon cakes in four flavors, sour, sweet, bitter and spicy.
It was reported that Haagen-Dazs could sell up 1.5 million boxes in a peak year. In China, moon cakes are first sold by vouchers; and people are presented with the voucher so they go to the shops to redeem their box of moon cakes.
Now in the weeks before and after Mid Sept, pastry shops, supermarkets and hotel restaurants in China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Japan are battling over consumer taste buds with different plans to win favor. Some are baking classic Cantonese-style moon cakes, with a glazed, toasted exterior, and lotus paste and whole egg yolk interior, while others rely on quirky modern twists–using fillings of imported cheese and cherries, champagne custard or spicy beef while exchanging the pastry skins for shells of chocolate, jelly or rice cake. Bakeries made moon cakes for the popular kid personality of Hello Kitty and Doremen too.
How big is the business?
Industry analyst estimated that as many as 250,000-300,000 tons of moon cakes were sold in China, producing an estimated revenue of $1.4 to 2 billion for bakeries, hotels and manufacturers. In Beijing alone, moon cake sales in the three-month purchasing season from July to September generated $20 million in revenue. Gifting is a key reason for the size and scale of the moon cake business.
As the festival approaches, the reception lobbies of corporations become inundated with colourful packages of moon cakes. Companies in China too give away Moon cake vouchers to the staff during the moon cake festival as part of staff welfare. Many restaurants are innovating and inviting Yang Shifu (western chefs) to lend a hand; they western pastry chefs to produce new taste for moon cakes. Moon cakes filled with dried Japanese scallops and New Zealand cheese. this Beijing brand Wei Duo Mei sold over 60,000 moon cakes that season.
This year, Wei Duo Mei is selling out of its buttery, blueberry-filled French moon cakes. More than one-third of its cakes at Wei Duo Mei are non traditional, and the gold and crimson sets sell for $15 to $40. Tai Pan Bread & Cakes, a bakery chain with 40 branches in Hong Kong, has enjoyed a loyal clientele since it’s opening in the 1980s in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Bay. It’s well known as the first to create a moon cake made with a rice cake skin, in 1980. It still sells the popular award winning Snowy Moon Cake, and the innovation has spread to other cities in Greater China.
Conclusion: The last question we asked is whether the Chinese Moon Cake can go international, and can become popular with non-Chinese around the world. We can watch that in more Chinese populated cities in western countries and see if this delicacy does have a world market?
Written on Sept 5 2014 Kuala Lumpur. Sept 8 is the Mid Autumn Festival for 2014.