Lighting candles on mooncake tins is a popular Mid-Autumn tradition in Hong Kong, but it can get dangerous.
Culture

A Mid-Autumn tradition: Setting fire to mooncake boxes

Sep 12, 2019

It’s the end of the Mid-Autumn Festival, and you have a bunch of empty mooncake tins. What do you do?

In Hong Kong, many kids set them on fire.

The Mid-Autumn Festival, traditionally a fall harvest celebration, has morphed into a family-gathering holiday akin to Thanksgiving.

A longstanding tradition involves exchanging mooncakes, small, round pastries stuffed with a sweet or savory filling and usually packaged in tin boxes.

Mooncakes are often sold inside tin boxes.
Mooncakes are often sold inside tin boxes. / Photo: South China Morning Post

Like the fruitcake in the West, these dense pastries have become such a common gift that families are often left with piles of empty tins at the end of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Which is where the tradition of wax burning comes in.

Set fire to the tin

Hong Kongers of a certain generation might fondly remember going to a public park on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, lighting candles on a tin box, and then waiting for the wax to melt before throwing water on top to create a giant fireball.

This is known locally as 煲蜡 (bou laap), literally “boiling wax.”

Wax burning as depicted in the 2010 Hong Kong movie “Frozen,” starring Aarif Rahman and Janice Man.
Wax burning as depicted in the 2010 Hong Kong movie “Frozen,” starring Aarif Rahman and Janice Man.

“It never starts off intentionally as wax burning,” says Alejo Rodriguez Lo, who grew up in Hong Kong and fondly remembers partaking in a few wax burnings. “You’re usually just lighting some candles, and people start throwing things in.”

“You’re usually just lighting some candles, and people start throwing things in.”

The smoldering tin essentially becomes a makeshift trash can.

“When I was like 6 or 7, paper lanterns were still quite common,” Lo recalls, “so we would throw that in as well. Before you know it, you have this huge flame.”

Wax burnings started because many families would gather outside in public parks on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival to observe the full moon—and they would bring along candles and lanterns.

Celebrating the full moon with candles and lanterns at Victoria Park in Hong Kong in 1997.
Celebrating the full moon with candles and lanterns at Victoria Park in Hong Kong in 1997. / Photo: South China Morning Post

“I always remember my aunts telling me not to do it,” says Lo, who picked it up from his uncle. “It was quite dangerous.”

For many teens, wax burning was a rite of passage, the techniques passed down from generation to generation. No childhood was complete without setting a few mooncake tins on fire.

Fighting the flames

By the 1990s, the practice had become so widespread that teens joked the Mid-Autumn Festival gave them leeway to partake in “legal arson.”

But for all the fun and mischief, many wax burnings did end with children going to the hospital for burn treatments, and the resulting cakes of wax that stuck to the ground were a nightmare to clean up.

Volunteers scrape off wax from the ground at Victoria Park in Hong Kong after the Mid-Autumn Festival in 1998.
Volunteers scrape off wax from the ground at Victoria Park in Hong Kong after the Mid-Autumn Festival in 1998. / Photo: South China Morning Post

In the late ’90s, the government began cracking down on the practice, issuing public bulletins about the dangers of wax burning and stepping up patrols of public parks during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

The efforts seem to have worked. In 1999, patrol officers issued over 7,900 “verbal warnings” to people who were burning wax. Last year, that number was down to 130.

“It was more common in my uncle’s generation,” says Lo, 28. “Now, not so much.”

But for many Hong Kongers, wax burning remains an indelible part of their childhood, a reminder of a simpler time before smartphones and computers, when the only forms of entertainment, as Lo puts it, were “fire and television.”

Mid-Autumn FestivalMooncakesChinese traditionsCity lifeHong KongNostalgiaInstagram