NEW YORK, Sept. 14 (Xinhua) -- If you happen to shop on Madison Avenue in the Upper East Side of Manhattan this weekend, you may expect personalized calligraphy on shoes at Alexandre Birman, Chinese brush painting at Jimmy Choo and a taste of mooncakes at Barry.
"Can't believe I am celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival with colleagues and customers this year. Rest assured that I have brought you both authentic and exotic mooncakes like the melon flavor," said Felix Ngo, Barry's shop assistant who was born in Hong Kong and would usually save the day for his family only.
It is the first time that this premier luxury district has offered Chinese cultural experiences marking the Mid-Autumn Festival, which fell on Friday this year.
"Chinese New Year celebrations have long been a staple here. But from now on, the Mid-Autumn Festival will be a new tradition," said Matthew Bauer, president of the Madison Avenue business improvement district.
"It was our stores that recognized the importance of expanding cultural events, for the Chinese communities and also for the local and other communities that might want to know more about China," he added.
For thousands of years, the Mid-Autumn Festival has been celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, when the moon is believed to be at its roundest and brightest. Often known as the Moon Festival and second in importance only to the Chinese New Year, it is all about family reunion and relaxation.
In the United States, a variety of Mid-Autumn festivities have not only eased the homesickness of the Chinese communities, but also won the hearts of many Americans at a time of tensions, as they joined the "moon party" to honor its traditions.
"Such an opportunity to connect around culture is a very worthwhile endeavor," said Jeremy Willinger, director of marketing at the China Institute, a non-profit organization promoting U.S.-China understandings.
The festival used to be celebrated mainly in Asian countries, but it has now gained growing popularity across the oceans. Willinger himself admitted that he hadn't heard of it until he learned about it on the job, but then he became a big fan, or in his own words, "What's not to like about food and joy?"
In New York and elsewhere, Moon-Festival-themed carnivals, galas and markets started from last weekend, and more have been scheduled for this weekend. Streets in Chinatowns were closed, cruise ships were rented, and top floors of landmark buildings were reserved for get-togethers.
Last Saturday in Chicago, at the Chinatown Square Plaza, a Mid-Autumn carnival featuring lion dances, Kung Fu shows and ethnic music cheered up locals and tourists. During the event a 363-kg, 2.67-meter-in-diameter mooncake was cut into slices and handed out to hundreds of the elders in the community. Several bakers had spent four days together preparing this gigantic gift.
Another event, hosted by the Chinese students and scholars' associations of DePaul University and University of Illinois, will be ready to entertain mostly young people with music, dance and magic shows this Saturday night on the 99th floor of the Willis Tower.
Earlier on Thursday, the South Coast Plaza in Southern California hosted its celebrations for the third year and charmed visitors with colorful lanterns, clay sculptures and dough figurines. The event organizers said that apart from showcasing traditional Chinese culture to Americans, it also served as a platform for exchanges among different cultures.
In San Francisco, its historic Chinatown had a two-day celebration last weekend with plenty of food, music, dragon dances and shows featuring the moon goddess Chang'e. The city's mayor London Breed, who joined the crowed with a group of officials and community chiefs, said, "The Mid-Autumn Festival is a time to celebrate our community, our family and coming together."
Citizens and tourists in Los Angeles might have to choose between two moon festivals on Saturday. The one in Chinatown offers cultural demonstrations, local bands and a peek at the full moon through a telescope, while the other in Valley Boulevard features a night market of multi-cultural Asian street food and drinks, as well as family-friendly games and entertainment.
The list of such events could go on and on, and perhaps they all speak to the spell of the festival and the broader Chinese culture.
A BITE IN VOGUE
The Chinese believe that the round shape of the moon and the mooncake embody reunion and harmony. Hence, among the best-preserved customs of the festival are watching the full moon and tasting the mooncake, both with family and friends.
It is no exaggeration that the mooncake is as important to the festival as the turkey is to the Thanksgiving, and modern twists of this traditional treat by worldwide bakery brands have made it a centerpiece of the celebrations more than ever.
Traditional fillings include lotus seed paste, sweet bean paste, jujube paste and five kinds of kernel, and the most common one on the market is made of lotus seed paste, salted egg yolk and lard.
The flavors du jour, however, can be chocolate, mocha, ice cream or coffee, reflecting a wider and younger taste.
Lady M, one of the finest patisseries in New York City, rolled out a mooncake collection of four flavors this year, namely green tea, chocolate, Earl Grey, and rose.
Over the years, other innovative variations of the mooncake have involved durian, spicy chicken and even 24-carat gold, while the price for a mooncake can be as cheap as less than a U.S. dollar and as high as over a thousand dollars.
The mooncake is certainly finding its way to the American dining tables, but Willinger, with the China Institute, said that it was not as much a phenomenon as the rise of China.
"The mooncake is an example of how China has become so much more significant and so much better understood," he said.