Calls and sounds of the Peking street peddlers

Paintings of street sellers and descriptions of their cries and jingles from Samuel Victor Constant's Calls, Sounds and Merchandise of the Peking Street Peddlers, written in 1936 as a master's thesis at the College of Chinese Studies.


This peddler has a peculiar call which is difficult to translate. He says –

“Chin t’ou la, hua t’ou la. Chiang mi yuan hsiao.”

A literal translation of the first two lines has no meaning. The first part “chin t’ou la” means that the heat has gone completely through the article. No peddler has been found who knows exactly what the second phrase “hua t’ou la” means but to say that the article is well cooked is translation enough for purposes of this study. The rest of the call is simple as it simply states that he has “yuan hsiao” or little round balls made of glutinous rice or “chiang mi”. You might give his call – “I have for sale little round rice balls which are thoroughly cooked”.

This peddler carries a small stove and a metal water bowl on one end of his “t’iao tzu” and on the other a wooden box containing the little round cakes made from glutinous rice flour. The cakes vary in size to about the diameter of a golf ball. They are dropped into a bowl of water and cooked for about an hour. They must be eaten hot or the material becomes like paste.

The expression “Yuan hsiao” comes from the term “yuan hsiao chieh”, the name of the festival on the fifteenth day – full moon – of the first month of the Lunar Year. This is sometimes called the Lantern Festival by foreigners. The cake is made round in shape because of the sound of the character “yuan” which is the same sound as the character “yuan” meaning round.