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By Lena Sharp
Growing up in Singapore, I’ve always been fascinated by the many colourful festivals celebrated in that tiny, yet culturally rich South-East Asian island all year round – one of the loveliest being the Mid-Autumn Festival.
During my short trip to Singapore this autumn, I was fortunate to have caught glimpses of streets decked out in glowing lanterns and lantern-walking events. I even shared a box of beautifully packaged mooncakes with a gathering of friends.
But what exactly is the Mid-Autumn Festival? Where did it originate? And what do these colourful lanterns and mooncakes have to do with it? It all began in ancient China, as a festival of thanksgiving to the gods during harvest time in the mid-autumn, when the moon was at its brightest.
The story has evolved since. Several lunar legends surround this thanksgiving celebration, one of the most notable being that of the legendary Chang Er, the wife of an evil king who saved her people from his tyranny in an act of bravery during this season.
In so doing, Chang Er died and ascended to the moon – and has since been worshipped as the Moon Goddess. Hence the connection between the Mid-Autumn Festival and all things lunar – from the ‘moon-like’ glow of lanterns at night, to the popular celebration of mooncakes.
These round ‘moon-like’ cakes consist of a sweet lotus filling within a pastry case. Modern variants come in the form of ‘snow skin’ cases with a variety of fillings – from chocolate to champagne truffle – to suit the modern palate.
According to Chinese folklore, mooncakes were first created during a Mid-Autumn Festival at the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1280 – 1368 BC) to help free China from Mongol rule. The Chinese organised an uprising by sending messages hidden in mooncakes to rebel forces who then overthrew the Mongols.
Mooncakes have grown in popularity in modern times to become the highlight of this ‘magical’ festival. The modern-day celebration is less bound up in folklore and superstition. Instead, it is a celebration of friendships and family reunions – centred around this delectable cake symbolising unity and completeness.
By Lonnee Hamilton
My husband Tony and I have been cycling together for more than 10 years. What started out as me huffing and puffing around the Rose Bowl in our hometown of Pasadena, California, has become somewhat of an international adventure for the both of us.
My first bike was a Trek hybrid (kind of a cross between a road bike and a beach cruiser; more comfortable than a road bike) — and though I sold it a few years back, it is still one of my favorite bikes. I started cycling because I needed a way to exercise that was not running. I hate running with a passion, and cycling fit the bill. I encouraged Tony to get his own bike and join me, which has since led him down the path to bike obsession (be careful what you wish for), but it’s all good.
We have cycled in L.A., Ojai, Palm Springs, Santa Barbara vineyards and San Francisco, to name a few places. And since moving to the UK four years ago, we have cycled in Cap Ferret on the southwest coast of France and in Paris and Amsterdam; on The Isle of Wight and Whitstable in England, and throughout London with trips to Richmond, Greenwich and Hackney Wick, among others. I’m a slow cyclist, so our cycling is more cycle touring.
Of all the places we’ve cycled, London is one of the most challenging for me. City traffic, traffic on the left-hand side of the street, and not really knowing traffic rules here at all definitely keeps you on your toes. But with time, I have become more and more comfortable cycling in London, so here are a few tips for you to get started:
If you go on longer trips, there are bound to be mishaps, accidents, and things that need to be fixed on the bike. Someone in your group should know how to change a tire, for example. I don’t want to go into too much detail about our cycling dynamics… but let’s just say it’s not me. A cycling toolkit is a must.
At first, it’s terrifying to cycle on the city street with a London double-decker in close pursuit. My first ride in Central London I freaked out so much it was weeks before I would try again. London traffic is intense, but drivers for the most part are very aware of cyclists, and bus drivers even more so. Just follow basic traffic laws, don’t be a cycling jerk, and don’t make sudden changes in riding movement and you will be fine.
Seriously, your head versus a cement curb... who do you think is going to win?
Don’t be shy. Use your hand signals to let drivers behind you know if you’re going to be turning left or right. I know I appreciate it when a cyclist uses their hand signals when I’m behind the wheel. The UK hand signals are a little different from the US ones, but all you really need to know is to indicate a turn.
Lonnee is the Club Relations director of the AWC. She owns real estate company London Realty International.
UK Cycling Hand Signals
How to Cycle in London
National Cycle Network Routes
– by Kathryn Gerken
It was a sunny, yet crisp, day in February. We were new to England and wanted to explore some iconic sites. We decided to take a train from King’s Cross to Dover, which took less than two hours, to see the famous white cliffs and Dover Castle. Like many castles, Dover Castle is built on a hill. In fact, it is built on a cliff overlooking the English Channel to France. The ramparts were begun in 800 BC and the castle took shape over 900 years.
We navigated through the streets of Dover and wound our way up the hill to the castle. At the entrance, the welcoming staff asked us if we were on holiday or if we might like to purchase an English Heritage Pass. We purchased the pass, knowing that we would at least be back to Dover with any out-of-town guests. Once we stepped through the walls of the castle, we were happy to be able to visit this piece of history anytime.
Not only is there a castle, with all the trimmings, but also the WWII military tunnels inside the cliff face that helped to evacuate the men from Dunkirk. It is a captivating display of tunnels, videos and voices from the past and well worth any time you might have to wait in line.
This is just one of the many sites that are open to visitors around England. Sadly, all were closed during the COVID outbreak, but they have been slowly re-opening. On July 4th, a large portion of the sites were re-opened to visitors, but they are now requiring reservations to enter. With an English Heritage Pass, you are still able to enter for free, but there will be timed entry for all indoor sites.
For outdoor monuments, some — like Stonehenge — have entry requirements, where others do not. Please be sure to check the English Heritage website for the most up-to-date information and make your reservations in advance — even if you have a pass. This is due to the new COVID restriction on entry.
You don’t need to be able to travel to enjoy some of these places. There are a handful that are right in London.
Apsley House, home of the first Duke of Wellington and his descendants, and Wellington Arch are just south of Hyde Park. The Apsley house, which was built in 1771, is home to paintings by Rubens as well as silver and porcelain. The Wellington Arch was originally designed to be a gate leading into Buckingham Palace, but it never came to fruition. In 1815, it was built just to celebrate Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon.
Closer to the Thames, you can visit the Jewel Tower. Built in 1365, this was part of the medieval Westminster Palace that was lost to fire in 1834. Its three-floor exhibit will walk you through the history of how the building was used. Close by is the Chapter House and Pyx Chamber. Built in 1250 by Royal Masons, it was used by the Benedictine monks of Westminster Abby for their daily meetings. The Pyx Chamber has a medieval tiled floor and a stone alter that survived the Reformation.
If you are near Hampstead Heath, take time to visit another English Heritage attraction: the Kenwood House Estate. Entry is free. The house was begun in 1616 by James the First's printer, John Bill, and has changed owners many times and been built to the grand 18th-century style mansion seen today. Home to many rooms of paintings and decor and surrounded by lovely gardens as well as the Heath, it is a nice getaway from central London. Their famous permanent and revolving art collections include works by Rembrandt. The house is currently closed, so please check the website for schedule opening times.
There are so many more sites around England and it's possible to take day trips or weekend overnights to see many of them. The English Heritage website is easy to use and very inexpensive to join. It is a great resource for those who want to learn more about the country that we are sojourning in.
I can’t wait to go back to Dover, but I am also looking forward to exploring more of England this summer on day trips and short getaways. Next stop, the Osbourne House and Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight!
Photos (top to bottom): Dover Castle, Apsley House, Wellington Arch, Jewel Tower
Having served as both Travel Group leader and Director of Activities for the AWC, longtime board member Kathryn Gerken is now Director of Club Meetings. She also runs her US-based travel agency, Gerken Getaways, remotely from London.
Historical novelist Tracy Chevalier, best known for her book, Girl with a Pearl Earring, will join the American Women’s Club of London and guests for an exclusive Zoom event on Thursday, 16 July from 7–8 p.m. to discuss her 2017 novel, New Boy. A creative modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello, the story incorporates jealousy, discrimination, casual racism, “fitting in” and other timeless themes in an unexpected setting: a 1970s school playground in suburban Washington DC (inspired by her own childhood).
The American-British author will talk about the story, the setting, the creative process, and the topical themes that resonate here and now. The interview-style conversation will be followed by a Q&A with online participants. Free for AWC members, the event is also open to others for a £10 fee. Proceeds from the event will be donated to the author’s chosen charitable organization. Register for the New Boy event here.
On her website, Chevalier explains the connection between the book and her own background:
“Like most students, my own school playground experience was at times fraught. Unusually, I grew up in an integrated neighborhood in 1960s and 1970s Washington DC, and went to a school where the majority of the students were black. So I knew what it was like to walk onto a playground where my skin color was different from many of the others, and the tension that could cause.”
New Boy, Chevalier’s ninth novel, is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which includes “reimagining” of Shakespeare plays by authors like Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson. Her tenth novel, A Single Thread, was published in 2019.
Tracy grew up in Washington DC where her father was a photographer for the Washington Post. She did an English BA at Oberlin College, and moved to London in 1984. She was a reference book editor for several years before turning to writing full-time.
The AWC is a diverse and inclusive community of women, providing international friendship, support and philanthropy throughout London. Founded in 1899, the Club welcomes all US citizens, as well as women of every nationality. The Club provides a busy calendar of social, cultural and educational activities (virtual or in-person), along with opportunities to serve through outreach programs with its partner charities. The AWC is a founding member of the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas (FAWCO) and a member of the Federation of International Women’s Associations in London (FIWAL). For more information, visit awclondon.org.
– written by Lonnee Hamilton
I have tried sourdough once before, back when I lived in LA. and the kids were young, but my starter devolved into a stinking, moldy mess, so I abandoned the whole idea. I did regularly make Mark Bittman's "No Knead Bread" that was recommended to me by a colleague when I worked as a copy editor at Bon Appetit magazine.
That recipe uses commercial yeast and not sourdough starter. But it's a good one to start with.
In these lockdown times, what better thing to do than attack a new domestic project that can be tossed into the bin if it doesn't work out?
Like most everyone, I didn't have just spare rye flour or whole wheat flour sitting around. And at that time I couldn't get an Ocado delivery, so plain white flour (not even bread flour) would have to do.
I found The Kitchn's recipe to be the most basic, and I needed basic.
Basically each day, you add an equal amount of flour and water to feed your starter. I used approximately 40g of flour and water each day.
I made a contraption of an old yogurt container and put a plastic bag on the top secured with a rubber band. My thinking was that you needed to allow some of the gases to escape. I placed it on top of my radiator in order to give it a warm place for the magic to happen.
The first couple days, it was very stinky and I thought I was headed down the same road of moldy failure. But don't mind the smelly hooch. Persevere. After about 2 to 3 days the smelliness starts to subside.
My starter took about 7 days to really get going, and along the way I was tempted to give up. But because we're in lockdown and it's a distraction, I kept going, which was good.
Baking with sourdough starter is baking on a timeline. It takes time to get the starter going, and after that it takes time to start baking. I think it's easier to just search for recipes that use starter, rather than trying to convert one that uses commercial yeast. I've had some trial and errors, but here are a few tips:
And that's my adventures in sourdough starter so far. Some people keep their starter going for years. We will see if mine survives quarantine.
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Lonnee is Club Relations Director of the AWC. In her former life she was a food writer for Saveur.
By Lena S.
In celebration of International Women’s Day, AWC London is proud to recognise two of their very own alumni who served as early champions of women’s equality — Lou Henry Hoover and Nancy Astor. These trail-blazing women made great strides in various spheres of public life, inspiring generations of women to come.
Humanitarian, Girl Scout Leader, women’s athletics advocate and First Lady of the United States, Lou Henry Hoover (1874–1944) was an avid traveller who loved the great outdoors. It was her childhood fascination for nature that eventually led her to Stanford University where she became one of the first American women to earn a degree in geology. There, she met her future husband: president of the United States, Herbert Hoover. Years later, her cross-disciplinary knowledge of geology and linguistics enabled her to help her husband translate a seminal 16th-century mining document from Latin to English.
Her life of adventure took a dramatic turn when the first World War broke out in 1914. Thousands of Americans were stranded in Europe, including the Hoovers who were based in London at the time. Undaunted by circumstances, Lou rose to the challenge by providing food, shelter, clothing and advice to those in despair, longing to go home. Driven by wisdom and compassion, she leveraged her husband’s position as Chairman of the Commission for Relief in Belgium to establish a California branch of the organisation — thus raising funds for vital food shipments to be sent to America.
Nancy Astor (1879–1964), the ‘first lady of British politics,’ was the first female MP to sit in the House of Commons in 1918. An American citizen who moved to England at the age of 26, she later married Lord Waldorf Astor, an American-born British politician. Glamorous, intelligent and fashionable, she was known for her charming wit and outrageous sense of humour. In spite of her affiliations with the higher echelons of society, she was a true inspiration to women of all ranks, in particular the early suffragettes. In fact, it was through his wife that Lord Astor developed an interest in social reform.
Lady Astor was well known for her sharp exchanges with Winston Churchill in the House of Commons. Churchill was reported to have likened having a woman in Parliament as having one ‘intrude on him in the bathroom’ — to which she replied, “You’re not handsome enough to have such fears.” Though controversial at times, her remarkable achievements as a champion for women’s rights in the dominant ‘man’s world’ of politics earned her a place in The Evening Standard’s list of 15 British women who have truly changed the world.
Top left: Lou Hoover | Source: Hoover Archives
Bottom Right: Nancy Astor | Source: English Heritage UK
AWC "Let's Do Lunch" event features a traditional feast
– Guest post by AWC member, Lena S.
Lo Hei! And a shout out to Eva Chu and Beth Wagner for organising a delightful Chinese New Year lunch at the Royal China, Bayswater to ring in the Year of the Golden Rat.
We began the meal with the lively tradition of yu sheng in which diners rise up to toss a spectacular dish together, using chopsticks and shouting “lo hei!” – a phrase derived from Cantonese, meaning ‘a toss to prosperity’.
According to an age-old legend, this ritual originated in south China, when a young man and his girlfriend found themselves stranded in bad weather and in danger of starving — but by a stroke of good luck, they found a carp and chanced upon a bottle of vinegar. They stripped the carp and combined the two, and lo and behold, this new dish was born!
Yu sheng is the ultimate ‘prosperity’ dish consisting of a colourful medley of fish and shredded vegetables combined with various tangy, piquant sauces, chopped nuts and spices — to create a delightful dish bursting with flavours and textures. The higher you toss it, the more good fortune you’re destined to bring in!
Although this celebratory yu sheng dish has its origins in ancient China, the modern version arose in South East Asia more recently — in places like Malaysia and Singapore, and is enjoyed on any day during the 15-day Lunar New Year period.
In keeping with tradition, AWC’s yu sheng dish at Royal China was served at the start of a multi-course lunch. It was followed by dim sum, lobster noodles and a host of delectable Chinese favourites. Many of us wore red on the day — the colour of happiness and success.
To all those celebrating, we wish you a happy and prosperous Year of the Golden Rat.
Guest post by AWC member Sue Monshaw
I made my London stage debut last December at the King's Head Theatre in the Charles Court Opera production of King Tut’s Tomb. My performance in the role of “stunned tourist” was touted as “good fun,” by one particularly drunk audience member and “smashing, darling,” by the tiny theatre’s manager and intermission snack seller. This was a very short run for my character, about 20 minutes to be precise, but the experience will last a lifetime and just might encourage me to try again this year.
The King's Head is located in the Islington section of London. To get to the theatre, it is necessary to cross the interior of the historic King's Head Pub itself. Jammed with inebriated people, this was no easy task as we dodged beer mugs passed overhead and left the ancient floorboards wet with the snow that had just begun falling outside. We emerged a bit disheveled, and entered a doorway cloaked in a velvet curtain. Inside the theatre, there is bench seating for about 75 people. Let’s call the space intimate as the stage is very close to the seats. There is no room for bulky coats or modesty. This audience would become our new best friends for the next few hours. We did not know that a prerequisite of attending such a performance is to have consumed many alcoholic beverages prior to the start of the show, which would prove problematic for me later.
The room was very close and I fought down my inner claustrobic. When the lights dimmed and the show began we quickly caught on that this intimacy was intentional and greatly added to the expected audience participation. We hissed at the villain and groaned in sympathy with the heroine. We laughed hysterically at the corny jokes and double entendres. There was twerking, hip hop dancing, rapping, arias and personal asides. We cheered wildly at the astonishing skill of the performers, who also happen to be classically trained in opera. We felt very much part of the experience and enjoyed it thoroughly.
King Tut was a pantomime production, which confused this theatre-going New Yorker because the word pantomime has a very different meaning in British vernacular. To the average American, pantomime refers to a soundless, brightly physical performance often done by someone dressed in a striped shirt, wearing white face make up and a beret. In merry olde England, a pantomime (or panto) is a theatrical musical Christmas season treat featuring clever dialogue, witty lyrics and physical comedy. Think Monty Python.
Usually based on a well-known fairy tale, fable or story, the panto features a series of characters including the dame (played by a cross dressing man), the main male character (played by a young woman), the main female character (played by a woman), a villain, and an animal or fantastical creature. King Tut featured a sassy camel who would periodically sing out looking for an audience response, “my hump, my hump, my (audience sings) sexy lady hump.”
images: Charles Court Opera
Why Christmas? Pantos may have evolved from the Tudor post-Christmas “feast of fools,” when a Lord of Misrule was chosen from a noble household in a role reversal where the servant played master of the manor for the day. Thus the entire household was turned upside down with the day’s lord demanding certain favors and making outrageous decrees. This was done all in good fun, of course, and evolved into the well-loved tradition of cross-dressing characters playing time honored stories encouraged by booing and singing audience members. As a holiday treat, many pantos are performed for family audiences with cleverly concealed political jabs and snarky social commentary disguised as silly jokes that make the kids giggle with delight. Other productions are aimed directly at adult audiences, no holds barred.
At intermission, the audience was encouraged to collect the drinks at the bar that they had ordered in advance and to buy an ice cream, oddly, the only refreshment on offer. It turns out that we have the Victorians to thank for this interval treat: it is quietly consumed, has no odor, appeals to all audiences. When we settled back into our places for the second act the energy level was high on the stage and in the audience. In addition to the audience participation, there can also be physical interaction between the actors and the folks in the seats. A common practice is a pie in the face or other slapstick element. In Tut, the camel would “spit” into the audience, drenching the first few rows. The play within the play here featured a game show contest where two audience members were called by name to join the actors onstage. Guess who was one of them?
Normally, I am not shy or nervous addressing a group, but in this case, I was completely out of character. My participation in this show, came as a total surprise and I was thoroughly stunned. My husband captured the whole, painful thing on video and I am stiff and sweating under the hot stage lights. The actors were enjoying my dismay and a few people in the front row yelled their encouragement to me while trying not to spill their drinks. Unfortunately for me, we were the only sober people in the room. I suspect I was chosen because I had phoned the box office earlier in the day to secure the last-minute tickets. I actually spoke to a human who may have recognized my non-native accent and shrewdly figured this would add to the fun.
My role was a participant on the game show which success would ultimately help get the time traveling characters back to the place they wanted to go. No pressure here, I could not fail. I flailed, I froze. The camel stood at my shoulder and fed me answers to the silly questions, his warm breath in my ear only adding to my discomfort. One of the game challenges featured a series of completely random items passing by a window cut into the set directly in front of my face. My task was to recall as many of these unrelated things as I could. Here the culture clash became downright bizarre as my brain struggled to recognize prawn crisps (shrimp flavored potato chips), a box of French letters (condoms), and Cadbury’s Dairy milk (chocolate bar), to name just a few. I was surprised to “win” and my prize was yet more agonizing time onstage as the group presented another game for me to blunder through. The drunkest woman in the first row gave me all the answers and inspiration I needed and I was finally released from my position centerstage, to loud applause. I was patted, touched and congratulated on my way back to my seat. I was overcome with delighted embarrassment, a very strange feeling indeed.
When I read the bios of the performers I was impressed to see that most of their credentials are loftier than this “of the people” show. They are accomplished serious performers in real life. Alys Roberts, a Welsh soprano, was absolutely adorable as young King Tut. Sporting gold lame, 1980s-era “Hammer” pants and a super sparkly blue Egyptian head dress, she behaved as a 20-something person would do, with energy and agility. When she opened her mouth to sing, what emerged was a sophisticated, elegant string of music that collided completely with what our eyes were telling us. It was obvious that the actors were having just as much fun as the lucky audience members. They chuckled in the wrong places, ribbed each other when a joke landed particularly well and cavorted across the stage with the silly delight of 10-year olds, unwatched by their parents.
I’m going back to the King's Head this year to see The Nativity Panto. This time, I’ll have my family in the audience and will hopefully remain anonymous to the stage manager. If our decidedly foreign accents are detected, I’m prepared to play the part of “wiser American ex-pat,” and will wear lighter clothing so as not to perspire so much under the hot lights and friendly scrutiny.
Susan Monshaw enjoys every moment of expat life in London. Most recently from NYC, she has lived in Paris, Tokyo, Connecticut and New Jersey. Susan is a writer, great lover of history, perpetual tourist, unrepentant eavesdropper and ardent watcher of people all around the world.
It’s different things to different people. It depends on who you ask.
For rough sleepers, it’s a safe and welcoming respite from the streets, a place to come for a warm meal, mental health counseling, and more. For the elderly, lonely and poor, it’s a place to connect and find comfort in a big city where they often feel forgotten.
For AWC volunteers, it’s an opportunity to serve others, widen perspectives, make new friends, and make a difference.
For Rev. Jennifer Mills-Knutsen, Senior Minister at the American International Church, the Soup Kitchen is about much more than the meals. “It’s not just a handout, it’s not just the clothes. It’s about a sense of community, a place to belong... And for many of us, it’s about missing them when they’re gone.”
Bonnie Garmus, AWC Activity Leader for the Soup Kitchen, shares her sentiments. “People come to the Soup Kitchen ostensibly for a meal, but also for warmth and companionship. While some struggle with mental issues or addiction problems, most of them are simply down on their luck. As one of the guests once told me, ‘The Soup Kitchen is one of the few places where I can go, enjoy a hot cup of coffee, and not be judged.’”
Although Bonnie works five days a week, she carves out time to volunteer there twice a month. She says she always looks forward to seeing AWC friends, Soup Kitchen staff and the many guests they serve. “I’ve been volunteering at the Soup Kitchen for nearly two-and-a-half years," she says, "and out of all the experiences London has to offer, this remains my favorite.”
Conversation with Bonnie: It’s about friendship and perspective
How has the Soup Kitchen changed since you started?
In the last year, the number of people who seek our help has doubled.
What’s the greatest need? How can people help?
We’re in dire need of men’s jeans, trainers, parkas, and backpacks. Gently used, clean—no holes! But we also need fresh recruits to help prepare food, serve food and coffee, take numbers for the Clothes Closet, and generally just dig in and help.
What strikes you the most?
You start realizing how thin that line is—how homelessness can happen to absolutely anyone. Some of our guests have been faced with horrific burdens through no fault of their own—bad luck, layoffs, war, human trafficking, illness, the death of a loved one. I’m always amazed at how optimistic many of them remain. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have thanked us for simply being there—for smiling, taking their requests seriously, asking after their latest job application, checking in on their health, and especially, especially, for not judging them.
How has the Soup Kitchen affected you personally?
I count many of the guests I’ve met at the Soup Kitchen among some of my closest friends in London—which might sound implausible, but it’s true. You get to know people at their worst and it creates a bond that isn’t easily broken. A few weeks back, one of them waited patiently for his number to be called for the Clothes Closet, then once at the window, told me he didn’t really need anything. "I just came to see you and say hello." It made my whole day.
About the AWC and the Soup Kitchen
The Soup Kitchen feeds roughly 100 people, six days a week. Every other Monday (the busiest day of the week), AWC volunteers prep and serve coffee and soup followed by a warm meal for the 100-plus guests, followed by cleanup. It’s hard work, but also fun, and hugely appreciated. As one volunteer put it, “It feels good to feel useful.”
We need nine to ten volunteers each time: four or five to help serve in the cabin, one to call out Clothes Closet numbers, two to three in the kitchen, and one in the Clothes Closet. Join us!
Learn more about the Soup Kitchen here: amchurch.co.uk/soup-kitchen/
"The American Women's Club of London" is a volunteer run organization. +44 (0)20 8088 3192 email@example.com