Cake makers keep festival tradition alive

The Zhuanqiao steamed rice cake, a specialty of the namesake town, is being lost in modern times.

Double Ninth Festival honors China’s elderly. This year the traditional festival that dates about 20 centuries fell on October 17.

Festival customs include drinking chrysanthemum wine, eating special steamed rice cake and, for the hardy, climbing a high mountain.

The holiday, also known as chongyang, is rooted in the legend of a young man named Heng Jing, who sought to slay a monster that was causing pestilence in the locality.

He told his countrymen to hide on a mountain, taking with them a dogwood leaf and a cup of chrysanthemum wine, while he went to confront the monster.

Later people celebrated Heng Jing’s defeat of the monster on the ninth day of the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar.

Legends aside, the festival remains part of local culture. Song Aihua and her husband Luo Renguan, inheritors of the Zhuanqiao steamed rice cake tradition, got up at 3am last week to make traditional holiday cakes.

“The periods after the national holiday and during the Spring Festival are the busiest time for us,” said Song. “We need to make hundreds of cakes every day. They all sell out.”

The Zhuanqiao steamed rice cake, a specialty of the namesake town, is included in Shanghai’s list of intangible cultural heritage.

Cake makers keep festival tradition alive
Ti Gong

The cakes were once a signature of the town. Every household made them during holidays. Today, however, only their shop still makes the original steamed cakes by hand.

“My aunts and grandmothers used to make rice cakes, as did the neighbors.” said Song. “Nowadays, there’s no place for stoves that can burn coal, and people don’t want to spend so many hours making rice cakes.”

The tradition of eating rice cakes symbolizes the remembrance of friends an family who have died and the warm ties that bind the living.

The Zhuanqiao steamed rice cake has a diameter of 25 centimeters and is about 10 centimeters thick.

Song and Luo’s shop is so popular that they are forced to deal with customers by reservation. After the Spring Festival, the couple shuts the shop for five months to travel and attend to grandchildren.

Many customers order the cakes in big lots for family consumption and gifts. 

Song grew up eating the cake, and she still eats it every day.

“It is weird. You just can’t get enough of it,” she said. “When I’m hungry I just grab some slices.”

The Zhuanqiao community often asks her to make rice cakes for the elderly in the neighborhood.

“I’m so busy with making cakes for the shop that I suggested they order them from my sister, who also makes the cakes,” said Song. “But they say the cakes don’t taste the same. I don’t know why that is.”

Cake makers keep festival tradition alive
Ti Gong

Luo Renguan, one of the inheritors of the Zhuanqiao steamed rice cake tradition, carefully measures the quantity of flour according to a time-honored recipe.

An element of superstition enters cake baking.

“For example, you cannot talk while making rice cakes,” she said. “And if you ask, ‘Is this cake ready?’ while it’s still on the stove, the cake won’t emerge fully baked.”

Song’s shop offers five flavors, including the original flavor, walnut and black sticky rice.

The old house where Song and Luo lived was recently demolished because of urban renewal. The couple was uncertain about carrying on the business.

The Zhuanqiao Culture and Sport Center connected them with Zhuanqiao High School, where a headmaster very interested in the traditional food craft offered them a place on campus to make rice cakes.

Zhuanqiao High School is also building a special classroom for students to

 take lesson from the couple on how to make the rice cakes.

“It is going to be the education base for Zhuanqiao steamed rice cake,” said Li Shizhong, who works at the center. “We are building stoves and adding molds to the classroom. We don’t want this tradition to be lost.”

The Shanghai Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center has selected various cakes to be included in a package of Chongyang cakes to promote this food tradition along with the ancient virtue of respecting the elderly.

Cake makers keep festival tradition alive
Ti Gong

Song says that they will take their nephew, who is now 32, on as an apprentice in cake baking. It takes years, she said, to master the techniques of moisture, softness, temperature and taste.

“My children and grand children aren’t really interested in it,” said Song. “Though we can keep the shop running for now, it’s tiring because we need to take care of grandchildren as well. But the tradition must be passed down. We need to find someone to inherit the skills even if that means going outside of the family."

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