Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Street Criers of Hong Kong, Circa 1872

Today I stumbled upon an article in the old China Review, published all the way back in 1872, and written by a curious Victorian interested in the hawkers of Hong Kong, or Hongkong as the old colonials knew the city. It was entitled, "Chinese Street-Cries in Hongkong", and is quite amusing in that the gulf between East and West was so great, and their languages so mutually unintelligible, that there is an element in the writing of a naturalist observing a different species. The author, the Reverend J. Nacken, appears though to have been genuinely interested in learning Cantonese (no doubt to communicate to new or potential converts) and paints a colorful picture of Hong Kong street life.

I shall just provide to you a short excerpt:
My friend was sitting at his desk, busy, no doubt, in framing the best-worded sentence ever penned in the East, when a howl from the street rang through the lofty verandah, and rebounded, as it were, from the high ceilings of the room. "That's one of those ubiquitous hawkers," said my friend angrily, springing to his feet and rushing to the verandah to have a look at the back of the disturber. I joined my friend quietly and was just in time to see a pair of broad shoulders raising themselves, and a pig-tailed head bending backwards; and then came a second edition of the howl we had heard before. I myself, being of an asthmatic nature, rather envied the sturdy fellow who could carry so much on his shoulders and walk a brisk pace, and yet have breath enough left to utter such stentorian sounds.

"What does that fellow call out?" my friend asked. I could not say, though I had been in China for some years, and, as my friend remarked, ought to know, if I pretended to know Chinese at all.

That was some years ago. In the meantime others like my friend must have suffered from the annoyance which led to the framing of Ordinance No. 8 of 1872, which says that:-

"Every person is liable to a Penalty who shall use or utter Cries for Purpose of buying or selling any articles whatever,...within any District or Place not permitted by some Regulation of the Governor in Council."

For the hawkers of Hongkong wooden tickets are provided which must be renewed every quarter at a cost of 50 cents. These tickets are signed by the Registrar General and have a notice stamped on their back which states that crying out is prohibited in Chung-wan, [Central- Ed.] on the great road, [Queen's Road - Ed.], and on the sea side. For the first quarter of this year 1082 tickets for hawkers were issued and for the second quarter 1146.

Assuming that every hawker cries once in a minute (many do it oftener) and that, on an average, his business keeps him out of doors for seven hours a day, this will make about half a million street cries every day. Besides these licensed hawkers, however, there are about as many other persons, old and young, who cry out with the objects of attracting attention to their trade. This would give about one million street cries a-day on this Island. That may seem an extravagant calculation on my part; but if some one will stand for ten minutes on any spot in the busy parts of the Chinese quarter and count the street-criers who pass by, he will doubtless become inclined to agree with the above estimate.
In the rest of the article, he describes the manner of products sold by hawkers, including a summary of the different items sold, like zhue huet djok (pig's blood congee), and different itinerants selling their wares and services. It is a fascinating, colorful picture that he paints, and I recommend you read the article. In any case, it seems, 19th century Hong Kong was as noisy a city as it remains today!

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