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.


This article, written by Rev. J Nacken and published in 1873, appeared in Volume 2 of The China Review. Nacken had moved to Hong Kong in 1867 to work for the Medical Missionary Society.


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 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 Chunk-wan,[1] on the great road,[2] and on the sea side.[3] For the second quarter of this year 1082 tickets for hawkers were issued and for the second quarter 1146.[4]

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 object 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.

After these preliminary remarks I will try to answer in a measure my friend’s former question, “What does that fellow call out?”

I do not intend to give the Chinese street cries as one hears them, and affix a translation, though that were the easiest plan; I would rather regard them as one of the many outward signs by which we learn the life of the Chinese around us, their moral and their domestic habits.

We will listen to the cries used for selling articles of food, fruit, and various articles for daily use; to the cries of those who buy refuse, and those who offer their services for repairing; of coolies, and to those in connection with idolatry.

The Chinese generally are early risers. Most of them will get up with the sun; then they dress, after which, rich as well as poor, look out for their warm water to wash in and have some tea. But the Congee hawker has been up an hour or two before sunrise; now he sallies forth, two boxes hanging from the pole over his shoulder, each containing a large cooking pot and a small wood-fire underneath. Every hawker cooks his own particular kind of Congee. As they pass your door you have your choice. Here comes the first, crying Mai ‘chü ‘hüt ‘chuh;[5] the next, Mai yü ‘shang ‘chuck,[6] etc. You may have pigs’ blood congee, fish congee, mulberry-root flavoured congee, or barley, or kidney or pork and a variety of other congees.

I may be allowed to here remark that all street cries are also heard on the water. When you see a man paddling his own canoe among the Chinese shipping, you may know that the articles he has for sale are the same as these sold on shore. As these hawkers do not come within the regulation which is in force on shore, I cannot say how many there may be. They simply have a small boat license; their lungs are so good that I hear their cries pretty distinctly in my house up the hill, and they assist their cousins on shore to swell the number of cries considerably. Some of these are of bad character; they will paddle out to the foreign shipping, having concealed bottles of samshoo under their heaps of sugar-cane or pine-apples. They bargain with the sailors and will steal if opportunity offers.

The second batch of hawkers who have articles of food for sale go out in the hours that precede the two principal Chinese meals at 9 A.M. and 5 P.M. There are firstly the sellers of vegetables. In spring they sell celery, coarse greens, water cresses, salad, spinage, and bean sprouts. In summer: pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, egg plant, popaga,[7] lotus root,[8] bamboo sprouts, many kinds of beans, etc. In autumn: caraway plant, pepper, potatoes, taro, various cabbages etc.; and in winter: mustard plants, white greens, colewort, parsley, onions, garlic, scallion, etc.

Mai’ tau’ fu’ [9] is a cry heard very frequently. This bean curd is often the “sung”[10] on the table. It is made of bean flour, prepared with salt, gypsum, and water, then pressed between two boards, and sold in little square pieces at one cash each.

After the sellers of vegetables come the hawkers of meat and fish. Fresh beef, pork and fish are generally bought in the market, but sometimes sold in the street. Dogs are not allowed to be slaughtered in Hongkong, either in the slaughter houses or in private dwellings. They are killed and eaten secretly, however, and although their meat is generally considered not very healthy, it is a treat to coolies. Hám’ yü, salt fish forms a great portion of Chinese street commerce. Mr Overbeck’s special Catalogue shows that he has exhibited in Vienna some 60 different kinds of salt fish. A little piece of it is in many cases the only meat on the table. There are sellers of fresh and dried oysters, of dried fish, shrimps, crabs, sharks’ fins and a variety of marine delicacies.[11] Others go about with baskets of living fowl, ducks, geese; others sell these animals dried or cured with oil. In Canton, hawkers of mince-meat go about who have a show-box, called the “Western mirror,”[12] by which they attract customers. I have not seen them here; perhaps the Police do not allow them as the exhibited pictures are, for the most part, of a licentious nature.

We will now notice the hawkers of fruit. They are divided into two classes. The one class go about with baskets slung over their shoulders, and cry out their fruit, which generally consists of one kind only. They sell it by the catty. The other class are retail-dealers; they sell single fruits of different kinds and cut up pieces of fruit for one or more cash. They have a nicely spread transportable table before them and a basket with stock at their side. The price is marked by little bamboo slips. They will go about until they find a shady place and remain there as long as shade and trade are favourable.

In summer we are supplied with loquats, pine-apples, mangoes, melons, rose apples, guavas, peaches, lichees, whampees, apples, pears, plums, different plantains, carambola etc.; in autumn with persimmons, olives, walnuts, chestnuts, peanuts, lemons etc., and in winter with different oranges, sugar-cane, Tientsin pears etc.

Of Confucius it is said, that he did not eat anything which was not in season.[13] The Chinese in this as in other respects do not follow their pattern sage. They pluck and eat their fruit when still unripe; this may be partly because they are afraid of thieves, and partly because the means of sending their produce to the market are so primitive and slow.

One of the most interesting aspects of street life presents itself at noon. Tables are set in convenient places shaded by a large umbrella. A bench for guests stands in front, whilst the busy cook stands behind. He cries out his delicacies and the price of them, which varies from 2 to 8 cash a bowl. Those of the Chinese who can afford it sit down to “shik-án-chan.”[14] There are beef, mutton, fish, and shrimp-congee, macaroni, vermicelli, sago soup, etc. Those of the hawkers who have not yet earned so much capital as to have such a stall, offer cheaper delicacies on their perambulating tables. You may get several kind of cooling gelatines or jelly with sugar for 8 cash a bowl, or a glass of lemon-water, or cake with meat or peanuts inside. Cakes vary according to seasons and festivals.

In the evening all the stalls and hawking tables are illuminated by paper lanterns, which, indeed, make the streets look lively and interesting. Besides the articles mentioned above you may hear cried out:– Pickled, salted, or candied fruit, betel nut, almonds’ milk, lotus-nut soup and a kind of whey made of milk. In winter the cooling dishes and drinks are exchanged for flour-balls and cakes boiled or cooked with oil.

I think we have now listened long enough to street cries for selling articles of food, and I should not wonder if my friend exclaimed, “Dear me, I had no idea that the Chinese had such a variety of chow-chow.” The fact is, I have not by any means exhausted my list of street cries of this nature. The Cantonese are gourmands and they pride themselves on their art of cooking. They have this saying:–

“Happy is he who is born in Soochow, who has his meals in Kwong-chow, and who dies in Laou-chow.”[15]

Another class of hawkers are the sellers of articles for daily use. Here is one panting under his load of earthenware; there is another who cries out his bamboo-wares, such as baskets, brooms, mats, benches, ginger grinders etc. Hawkers of fans, pipes, feather-dusters, china, firewood, tobacco, salt, oil, cloth, lanterns, etc., one meets everywhere. Beautifully arranged bunches of flowers are offered to you in the street, but happily in a quiet way, because they attract sufficient attention by themselves, I suppose.

“What does that fellow call out? He has nothing in his two baskets.” Ah, my friend, he belongs to a very numerous and a very bad lot of men. He is a buyer of refuse. If you hear a voice cry out “mái lán t’it lán t’ung”[16] you may be sure that he will soon be at the back of your house, near your servants’ quarters. He has plenty of money with him, and he will buy from your cook bones, feathers (the good ones for fans and the bad ones for manure), rags and empty tins; from your coolie, paper, nails, shoes, needles, thread or anything that can be got hold of whilst sweeping the rooms; from your boy he will buy bottles, glass, or anything which you may have lost, such for instance as a key, a lock, a stocking, a handkerchief, or a gold button, and even a watch.

There are a great many of these refuse buys in Hongkong, but I cannot say how many, as they do not come under the Hawkers’ Ordinance. They either have their own shops or they deliver their goods to one of the licensed shops, called Marine stores, which take their name, I am inclined to think, from the fact that all not properly acquired goods are sent afloat into the interior as soon as possible. There are, however, other refuse dealers who are quite respectable. They buy or exchange broken silver, old fans, spectacles, frames, opium-dross, etc.

We have now to turn our attention to the cries of those who offer their services for repairing things. And here I must say, that the Chinese have really acquired the art of mending. In how wretched and clumsy a way are things repaired in Europe! There is not a foreigner in China who has not several testimonials in his house, proving that his servants are very careless in breaking glass and china and that his servants’ countrymen are very skilful and careful in mending it. His tools look rather primitive, but they answer the purpose. The diamond gimlet especially in a treasure which is not known in Europe. Besides glass and china this simple-looking spectacled old man will repair foreign umbrellas, clasps, and hinges, and mark china-ware. Another carries women’s toilet boxes with him, which he exchanges for old ones if they are past mending. A third sharpens razors and whets scissors; then come the travelling smith, the cobbler, the tinker; one who hoops tubs and basins, and finally the repairer of mats.

In passing we may notice the familiar warning cry of our chairbearersMái ‘pin’[17] “step aside,” and of the coolies in carrying loads ‘T’ai keuk’[18] or ‘Hoi lò’[19] “look to your footing,” “clear the road!” – and then pass on to hear a few cries in connection with idolatry. Here is the hawker of joss paper, of incense sticks and of candles; there is a table, a chair and a picture of a man’s head; a shrewd-looking Chinaman has a crowd of eager listeners gathered around him, whilst with his persuasive tongue he tells his fortune to the one who for a few cash has engaged his services. He is a sort of phrenologist. His brother fortune-teller who has his stand at the next corner pretends to read a future happy fate by the lines of his customers’ hand. Sometimes you may see an elderly woman with an open umbrella pacing along the sidewalk. Sün meng[20] she calls out into the houses. Her prophesying apparatus consists of two tortoise shells. A happy day for a family festival or a felicitous name for a child she is sure to find. And if a child be sick she knows that the little one’s spirit has been frightened away by a cat or a dog or something else. She will bargain for some twenty cash, take the child’s jacket, light a fire in the street and call the frightened spirit back. After the jacket has been put on the child, the spirit is supposed to have taken up again its former abode within;– and our last street crier walks on.


1. The middle ring the middle ring, i.e., the middle (European) part of town.
2. Queen's Road i.e., Queen’s Road.
3. Praya i.e., Praya.
4. These particulars have been kindly furnished by the Aetg. Registrar General.
5. Congee 1
6. Congee 2
7. Popaga
8. Lotus root This is a very good vegetable, which is not yet found, as far as I know, on European tables. This root, after being dried and powdered, forms the well-known arrow-root.
9. Bean curd
10. Sung i.e., whatever is on the table besides the rice.
11. Marine delicacies
12. Western mirror
13. Of Confucius Lun Yü X. 8.
14. Eat the noon meal to eat the noon meal; to take lunch. The last two characters have probably given rise to the pidgin-English chow-chow, to eat.
15. The Soochowites are envied by our orange-skinned Cantonese friends, being of a fair complexion; Laou-chow is said to have the best wood for coffins.
16. Old iron and copper to buy old iron and copper.
17. Step aside
18. Look to your footing
19. Clear the road
20. Calculate destinies to calculate destinies.