REPRESENTATION — ESEA Heritage Month & The Mid-Autumn Festival


September is the East and Southeast Asian Heritage Month (ESEAHM) in the United Kingdom. Known by its acronym, ESEAHM celebrates the people, culture, heritage and diversity from the geographical regions of East and Southeast Asia. Eva Wong Nava takes a look at how ESEAHM is celebrated in the UK since its inception in 2021 through words and pictures.


If you haven’t previously heard of the acronym — ESEA — I don’t blame you. Frankly, the acronym is new to me, too, even though I am a person belonging to the ESEA diaspora. Before the coining of ESEA as an identity marker, a person like me was categorised as an Ethnic Minority, part of the BAME acronym. I would rather be an ESEA than a ME, I’ll be honest. And because I am both British and East and Southeast Asian, I embrace the acronym, BESEA.


The acronym, ESEA, was coined by a group of six disgruntled British ESEAs, who were fed up of news agencies like The Guardian, BBC, Sky, and ITV, always “using photography depicting East & South East Asian related imagery when discussing COVID-19.” 

Viv Yau, who is British-born Chinese from Manchester, then started a petition to stop the use of “damaging and hurtful” imagery that “perpetuates the idea that all BESEA are coronavirus carriers.” During the pandemic the British ESEA communities were consistently targeted with micro-aggression and racism as a result. As writers and illustrators, we know that words and pictures have power — they either uplift or denigrate.


So, where is East and South East Asia? The region comprises of at least 15 sovereign countries and 108 documented ethnicities. East Asia is China, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia, while Southeast Asia is a landmass made up of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Brunei, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia, and East Timor. These 11 countries are distinct in their heritage languages, religions, cultures and people, even as they share many similar values and mindsets. And collectively, this region of the globe is known as the Far East in Britain.


Southeast Asia also shares a colonial past as during the 19th and 20th centuries, countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar and Brunei were under British administration, while Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia (aka Indochine) were under French rule, with the Philippines ruled by Spain and then America, and the Dutch had Indonesia. The only nation never to have been colonised was Thailand, despite the arrival of the first Europeans from Portugal to the region in the 15th century.


Immigration played its part in populating the region with Chinese, Indians and Europeans, thus forming many sub-cultures such as the Eurasians and the Peranakans. As a Peranakan-Chinese, I belong to two worlds — as my author bio states. I have Malay ancestry, perhaps even some European, but I identify as ethnic Chinese. Of festivals, I celebrate the Chinese New Year (aka Lunar New Year) and the Mid-Autumn Festival (aka the mooncake festival).


In this article, I’ll be focussing on the Mid-Autumn Festival, a day when East Asians gather to moon-gaze and eat mooncakes. The celebration falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth month in the lunar calendar. This translates to late-September or early-October in the Gregorian one. This year, mid-Autumn falls on the 29th of September.


 Various types of mooncakes by Natelle Quek 

The festival is remembered through an ancient Chinese fairytale — the story of Chang’e and Houyi [pronounced Jang-uh and Hoo-yee]. Even though the Mid-Autumn Festival is widely celebrated in East and Southeast Asia, and is the second most important festival next to the Lunar New Year for many people of ESEA heritage, it still remains relatively unknown in many parts of the Anglo-European world.

Of books that centre the story of Chang’e and Houyi, there are few. For instance, I didn’t grow up reading stories of Chang’e the moon goddess or of Houyi the lord archer in English, the only language I read in. I knew the fairytale because my grandmother and mother told me the story.


However, with the publication of Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan (HarperVoyager, 2022), Chang’e the moon goddess is beginning to be seen and heard. This retelling of the fairytale is immersive, transportive and unputdownable. I was coursing through the book like how the celestials in Tan’s YA-crossover novel were riding across the Heavens on clouds. It was no wonder that Tan’s book, the first of a trilogy, became an instant Sunday Times Bestseller within weeks of its publication in the UK. The gorgeous cover art for the UK edition is by award winning London-based Taiwanese illustrator, Jason Chuang.


UK cover art by Jason Chuang 

The Mid-Autumn festival is also celebrated in Japan, and is known as Tsukimi. Though it’s celebrated on the same day as the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, Tsukimi focuses on the moon-gazing aspect of the celebration. Instead of mooncakes, the Japanese feast on dango, a type of sticky-rice dessert. During this time, the moon is so full and bright that you can see shadows in the moon’s face. The shadows are that of Chang’e and her pet rabbit. 

According to some versions of the story, Chang’e is in her moon palace stirring a pot of magic potion together with her pet. The Japanese celebration took influences from the Chinese one, but was established as a uniquely Japanese cultural festival during the Heian period (from 8th to 10th centuries), the golden age of Japanese arts and literature.


Luna and The Moon Rabbit (Salariya, 2018) by Camille Whitcher, a Japanese-British author-illustrator based in the UK, is a picture book that was inspired by Tsukimi. The story is whimsical, magical and dreamy. I was over the moon to discover this book, as it was really a rare find, and not surprised at all that it won the Stratford Literary Festival - Salariya Children’s Picture Book Prize.


Luna and the Moon Rabbit, by Camille Whitcher (Salaria)

Speaking of rabbits, I am also delighted to know that award-winning children’s author Maisie Chan has a new book out in her Tiger Warrior series, Battle For the Jade Rabbit (Orchard Books, 2023). This book focuses on a different legend to the famous Chang'e one. This time, it’s a Mid-Autumn Festival retelling of the legend of the Jade Rabbit. 

According to the legend, the Jade Rabbit was entrusted with the job of making immortality medicine by the Jade Emperor, after Wu Gang, a god, gave away some immortality pills to humans, which angered the Jade Emperor as he didn’t trust humankind. The Chinese believe that the Jade Rabbit has a selfless nature, and lives on the moon with Chang’e, so she won’t be so lonely.


Tiger Warrior: Battle for the Jade Rabbit, by Maisie Chan (Hachette Kids)

The fourth in the series, Chan’s book ups the stakes for Jack (the protagonist), who must harness the power of Monkey and find the Jade Rabbit, who is the only one that can make the magical elixir of immortality, so that the moon goddess can be saved. It is a tale of epic proportions, and one of fantastical adventure, good for 7 plus readers. I can’t wait to read this one! 


On the 29th of September, I'll be eating mooncakes and doing some moon-gazing during the Mid-Autumn Festival, like many people from the ESEA diasporas. I invite you to join me from wherever you are in the world.


*Header image: Ell Rose and Tita Berredo 

Eva Wong Nava writes for children. She was born in Singapore, where folklore and myths from East Asia abound. Inspired by them, she has written a middle-grade anthology of East Asian Folktales, Myths and Legends that will be released on March 14, 2024. Eva continues to search the archives for East and Southeast Asian myths, legends and folklore. If you have some to share with her, contact her at or find her on X and Instagram @evawongnava.


Ell Rose is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures. Contact

Tita Berredo is the Illustrator Coordinator of SCBWI British Isles and the Art Director of Words & Pictures. Contact

1 comment:

  1. Lovely article, Eva - and I'm looking forward to eating mooncakes!


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