Street cries of the world

Street cries were once a popular subject of songs and literature in Britain, continental Europe and elsewhere. Each month from 2018 onwards I'll be scanning and transcribing publications to build this collection.



These peddlers have a “t’iao tzu” – on either end of which is a large basket made from thorn tree branches (ching t’iao k’uang). In these baskets is carried charcoal. He calls out “t’an lai, yao ling t’an”, “Come and get your charcoal, I weigh it out in small quantities.”

The charcoal peddlers have a call and also a drum about eighteen inches wide and three inches thick. This is carried by a handle stuck in the side. Two thongs are also fastened in the side of the drum which strike with a peculiar dull thud which is characteristic of the charcoal peddler.

These men appear on the streets about three in the afternoon and sell charcoal until about ten at night. People prepare in advance for the morning fires and so the peddlers do not start to sell charcoal until the afternoon.


This type is another difficult one to catalog. In olden times there were many of them in Peking but they are growing less as the drug shops increase. They carry a bag or box in which they keep all sorts of medicines. Their stock in trade is a plaster made from medicinal substances and mixed with sesame seed oil to form a thick, dark colored salve. This is backed with cloth, heavy paper, or silk and put over the spot where the patient’s ailment lies.

In addition to the plaster of thick salve called “Kao yao”, there is added a little special medicine depending on whether the patient is suffering from blood, bone, muscle, or other trouble. This of course is a very primitive form of medical treatment and slowly going out of fashion within the city walls of Peking. However, in the country, outside the walls, this medicine man does a thriving business. In this case he becomes less of a peddler type and more of a doctor.

Many of these “country doctors” have a mule or camel on which they pack their medicines and as doctors do not abound in the country, their services are much in demand. They travel from town to town, staying in each as long as trade is good, and return to Peking to replenish their stock of medicines when necessary. Their treatments are all by external applications.

These medicine men announce their presence by an instrument called a “hu ch’eng tzu” or “tiger stretcher”. This is a hollow iron ring like a doughnut with a slit cut all around the outer edge. Inside the ring are several small iron balls. This ring is carried over all fingers placed points together or over the thumb alone. As the medicine man walks along the ring is shaken or revolved around the thumb as the case may be and the balls rolling around the hollow ring make a very resonant sound, characteristic of the “country doctor”.

This “hu ch’eng tzu” or “tiger stretcher” has quite a history. It seems that in the olden days – the Han Dynasty to be more or less exact – there was a well known doctor by the name of Hua T’o. He is the same doctor who is supposed to have cured Kuan Lao Yeh from the effects of a poisoned arrow in the days of the Three Kingdoms in the Han Dynasty. The story of this event is known as “Kua ku liao tu” or “Scraping bone to cure poison”. Hua T’o is also known for having a large number of medical books. When imprisoned by Ts’ao Ts’ao for prescribing a cure which the latter thought dangerous he was sentenced to death. Hua T’o gave his medical books to an official who had been kind to him in prison. The official went to the doctor’s house to find the wife of Hua T’o in the act of burning the books. He succeeded in saving all those pertaining to animal diseases but only part of those concerning the curing of human ills. The Chinese claim that this is the reason for their doctors being excellent in the care of animals but not so good in the care of humans.

However this may be, the same Hua T’o is also credited with the origin of the “hu ch’eng tzu” or “tiger stretcher”. He is supposed to have been travelling from one village to another in the mountains. On the road he met a tiger which was in great pain. The animal asked him to cut a growth out of its throat but Hua T’o could think of no way to do it. He told the tiger to meet him the next day and he would try to think of a plan. That evening in a nearby village the doctor had made an iron ring like a doughnut after the type described above. This he placed in the tiger’s mouth so the teeth could not close and through the hole in the center was able to cut the growth from the throat of the tiger. After this Hua T’o carried the iron ring with him and it became a regular part of a doctor’s equipment.


This peddler has appeared on the Peking streets only since about 1900 with the introduction of various kinds of iron and tin into China by foreign merchants. This type of peddler goes from place to place buying up old tin and iron which he makes into water kettles, candle and oil lamps and other small articles.

The kettle peddler has a “t’iao tzu” on which he slings his collection of kettles and also a small stove which he uses to repair and solder kettles. As he goes along he hits the bottom of a kettle with a stick to let people know he is coming. He also has a call –

“Yang t’ieh hu” –
“Foreign iron kettles”.

This of course means that he has kettles for sale which are made from foreign tin or iron. Many of these are made from the Standard Oil or other brand five gallon gasoline tins. As noted above this peddler is more or less a newcomer to the ranks of peddlers. In olden days the copper or brass kettle was purchased at a brass store and used for years at a time. Now the tin kettle is more common but of course does not last as long – hence the peddler is able to exist as the housewife cannot go to a store every time a kettle wears out.


These men are called “impure silver buyers” in Chinese but “used” rather than “impure” conveys more to the foreign mind in trying to find a title for them. They buy where most peddlers sell but they obviously belong in the same category and play such an important part in Chinese life that they have been included.

Years ago they started out just to buy women’s silver or plated hair ornaments, rings, bracelets, etc. which might have been slightly broken, out of style or in need of rewashing with silver or gold. These bought, and still are, at twenty per cent off from the original value by weight.

As time went on these men gradually came to buy any sort of article, broken or worn out and also those in good condition. Now they will buy anything from rings to camphor wood chests, and even curios of all kinds.

There are two kinds of these “peddlers”, both being more often called “ta ku erh ti” – “small drum beaters” than by their real name given in the title. The first type hits a small drum about four inches in diameter. These men have no distinguishing call. They “t’iao” two bamboo baskets and will buy worn out and broken articles of all descriptions (except the broken bottles, rags, etc. desired by the match peddlers).

The second type hits a smaller drum – only about two inches in diameter which has but one covered head. This is held between the thumb and forefinger of the left hand and struck with a small reed stick held in the right hand.

Some of these men have a “t’iao tzu”, others carry a blue cloth bag in which they carry their scales for weighing silver articles. They call out –

“Ch’ao yin tzu, shou shih lai mai”
or approximately
“Come and sell your used silver and hair ornaments”.

This latter type does business on a much larger scale than the former and will buy not only the better class of broken articles but also those in good condition – books, chests, chairs, tables, metal articles, china, silverware and curios of all kinds. These men act as agents for the various curio stores when an article is worth more than ten or fifteen dollars and in that case get a commission on the transaction.


The china peddlers are seen on the streets all during the year. They have the following call –

“Huan ch’a hu lai. Huan ch’a wan lai”.
“Come and trade your teapots. Come and trade your teacups!”

These men have a “t’iao tzu”. On each end is a large basket on top of which is piled a large pyramid of bowls, cups, saucers, teapots and other china articles. The china is of better grade than carried by the “second grade china peddler” but not the best grade. The best china is made in Chiu Kiang (Kinkiang, Kiangsi) and is only sold in the shops – not by peddlers.

The most interesting thing about the china peddlers is the way in which they tie their wares up into pyramids or bee hives in shape. Only one cord is used for each heap of china, impossible as it sounds. Cups, saucers, teapots, bowls, small vases and what not are piled on top of each other and tied on in some miraculous way so that they do not fall off. Yet any article may be taken from the pile with the minimum of effort for sale to customers.

These peddlers sell their china but prefer to trade their wares for clothing, hats, shoes, unwanted old china, curios, etc. These articles must be in good condition. The china peddlers are always on the lookout for old valuable china which the housewife may not want or perhaps not know its true value. They keep an ear to the ground for news of a betrothal, for then they know the family will be looking for a set of china to send with the bride to her new home.

This set includes the following for the ordinary Chinese family:–

1 large vase, about three feet high and mostly used to hold feather dusters.
1 large fruit plate, about two and a half feet in diameter.
1 pair flower vases, with stone artificial flowers.
1 pair each – teapot, teacup, saucer.
1 pair china pedestals for holding hats.
4 food bowls.
2 soap dishes.
2 or 3 wash basins.
4 pairs of assorted small china boxes for face powder, pins, etc.
2 bowls for washing out the mouth.

This set will cost about $30 Peking currency and of course much more expensive ones may be purchased. As it is necessary to supply a betrothed girl with such articles it usually is not easy for the family concerned. Hence they will often trade curios, valuable china and other articles to the china peddler in order to obtain the customary set for the bride. On such occasions the china peddlers make quite a bit of money to make up for the small profits of their ordinary business.


This peddler calls –

“Huan pen er, ai. Huan wan erh, ai.”
“Exchange basins-ai. Exchange bowls-ai.”

At New Years every family needs extra rice bowls, plates or wash basins. So this peddler carries a stock of these made of low grade china which he trades for old clothing and old or broken articles of all kinds.

The plates, bowls and basins are fastened on two baskets hung from the end of a bamboo stick “t’iao tzu” in a most decorative manner. Each article can be easily untied without dropping others out and the peddler’s two bundles swung one on each end of the pole look like two large beehives.

This peddler will sell for money but prefers to trade his goods for old clothing, shoes, etc., as noted above.


This man like many of the other street peddlers has a “t’iao tzu” which consists of two wooden boxes slung from the ends of a pole carried on the shoulders. On one of these he has a small gong which swings back and forth as he walks and is hit by two brass pendulums which also swing free. This makes the well known sound of the china mender or “Chu wan erh ti” as the Chinese say.

These men formerly carried a small stove and soldered small brass articles, repaired locks, etc. They used to be called “hsiao lu chiang” or “the small stove workmen”. This is even now their real name though since about 1900 they have almost all ceased to carry stoves and do brass work.

Their common name is “chu wan erh ti” or “bowl mender”, and in this they are very expert. They can repair almost any kind of china or glass article. They do this by means of small metal clips or rivets made from iron or brass wire.

The broken article is first put into its original shape and bound when possible with string. The peddler then takes his very primitive hand drill, on which he uses a small bow, and drills one hole on either side of the crack. He next uses one of his small clips or rivets which he hammers into the two holes. This process is continued all along the break. When the job is finished the plate or bowl is as good as new – unless you look on the underside of it. The uninitiated foreign housewife often uses plates for some months before she discovers they have been broken and fastened together again!

The drill is nothing but a stick and bow such as the American Indians used to make fire. This small bow with string sufficiently loose to take a turn around a metal pointed stick is all that is needed for the china mender to work miracles. He uses very small diamond chips which are inserted in the metal point of the drill stick in order to cut the holes for rivets in the china and glass.


Only the extravagant Chinese housewife buys matches. All others make use of the match peddlers who exchange matches for old paper and other articles as will be later explained. At the present time the matches used are the ordinary kind which are made commercially in Peking after the foreign model and which sell at about twenty-five coppers a box. They are called “yang huo” or “foreign fire”.

Actually, matches are more often called “ch’u teng” or “light bringers”. This is of course the name used in olden times since matches have only been used in China for about fifty years. Prior to that time, flint and steel were used to make fire and the primitive match was a short piece of dried hemp stalk, ignited by a spark and blown into flame.

The match peddlers are divided into two kinds, men who carry a “t’iao tzu” and old women who carry a basket. The first kind exchanges his matches for old metal cooking utensils, bottles, old shoes, large pieces of paper and old stoves and stove pipe. He also carries soap which he will exchange for broken articles. Whatever broken articles he collects he takes outside of the Ha Ta Men, “Hatamen Gate” where he and his fellows sell their broken articles to small merchants who deal in these goods and who conduct a small market there.

As the peddlers walk along the streets they call out –

“Yang p’ing tzu mai – po po li mai.”
“I buy foreign bottles and broken glass.”

In addition to buying broken bottles, these peddlers will buy full bottles of wine from the servants in foreign and the wealthier Chinese families and sell them back to the wine stores. This is a very nice arrangement for all concerned except the head of the house who may be buying his own wine in more ways than one.

The second kind of match peddler is the old woman who carries a basket on her back. She does business on a much smaller scale and trades her matches for scrap paper and scraps of torn cloth. Sometimes these old women also carry a few cakes of soap for trade but their capital is only a few coppers, so they cannot have any sort of stock. These poor souls take their scraps and rags to a place just outside Ch’i Hua Men, “Ch’ihuamen Gate” where they sell them to small merchants for making paper.

These old women call out in a very shrill and piercing voice –

“Huan ch’u teng erh”
“Exchange matches” or
“Huan ch’u teng erh lai”
“Come and trade matches”.


This peddler has any number of calls and is heard in the cold weather. He calls in a very high voice and generally says –

“Sai li (lei), la la huan”
“Compare with pears, if bitter I will exchange”,
“Lo po, sai li, la la huan”
“Turnips comparable with pears, if bitter I will exchange”.

In the first call the sound shown as (lei) has no meaning. In the second call the words “lo po” meaning turnip mist be explained. The characters for this actually read “lo fu” but are always spoken as “lo po”.

These peddlers either carry a basket or a “t’siao tzu”. The basket carrier is seen and heard at night. He also carries a lantern. His basket is oblong in shape and made from “ching t’iao” or thorn bushes. This makes a very strong basket such as used to carry coal and other heavy articles. In this basket he puts his turnips and radishes, covering them with a thick cloth. The Chinese radishes grow very large like turnips in size.

The peddler with the “t’iao tzu” carries a round wooden tray slung from one end of the pole and a “ching t’iao k’uang” or thorn bush basket on the other. He keeps most of his wares in the basket, only taking out a few to put on the tray. This peddler considers himself considerably above his brother who carries the basket. He does most of his business in the day time but at New Year’s time he is seen out after dark also because he is especially clever at cutting the turnips and radishes into flower designs.

The common design is to cut the turnip or radish like a lotus flower. The peddler places the turnip in his hand with the top (where leaves sprout) down. He then cuts off the point and rotates the turnip in his hand at the same time slicing the skin almost off. He next cuts the inside with parallel slices one way and then the other. The parts of the turnip open out to look quite like a flower.

Naturally some peddlers are more expert than others and the ones having a “t’iao tzu” are supposed to be the most skillful of all. Some of them have a very special ability to cut a turnip or radish into a “lo po teng” or turnip lantern. This is done by hollowing out the turnip until there is only a thin shell left. Then designs are made by carefully cutting off the skin in the desired pattern. When a light is placed inside it will of course shine through the white shell of the turnip where the skin has been removed.

The Chinese believe that the turnip has the ability to absorb poisons. It is popular in the winter because it seems to cure persons from the effects of coal gas. The Chinese coal balls made from coal dust and clay give off a lot of carbon monoxide. In small quantities this is very unpleasant and in large quantities often fatal. The turnip is supposed to cure headache and other ill effects of the coal gas.


These peddlers are seen on the streets during the ninth and tenth months – the autumn – of the Chinese year. Their cry is

“Kuo k’uei lu tzu” – “Stoves made of asbestos”.

It will be noticed that the words of his call are not like the name of what he sells which is “pu hui mu lu tzu” or literally “stove made of wood which has no ash”. These peddlers have a “t’iao tzu” on each end of which is a shallow basket about three feet in diameter made of thorn bush twigs.

The stoves are carried in these baskets and are of various sizes. They are made of a sort of clay containing asbestos which comes from mines in eastern Hopei Province about fifty miles east of Peiping. This locality is not far from the “Tung Ling” or Eastern Tombs of the Manchu Emperors.

The clay like material is mixed with water, moulded to shape and allowed to dry. The stoves are round in shape and have seven iron grate bars. In the smaller stoves these are fixed but in the larger ones the bars are removable.