Hong Kong's Pawn Shop Signs

The Tai Fat Pawn Shop sign.
If you live in or have ever visited Hong Kong, you may have caught an occasional glimpse of a store sign featuring an upside down bat holding a coin. You may have also noticed that these signs are colored in vibrant shades of neon red and green. These signs are used by Hong Kong's pawn shops and have been for well over two hundred years! The colors and symbolism of these signs have special meanings in both Hong Kong and Chinese society as a whole.

In ancient China, store signs started appearing during the Song Dynasty (960-1127). One type of sign commonly found in was that of a coin with an eye in the middle. This type of coin is called a "cash coin" or "eye coin" and was the coin used as currency in ancient China. Hanging above a store door, an "eye coin" sign represented good luck, happiness, and prosperity. Signs featuring coins can still be found across China today and pawn shops are just one type of business that uses a variety of this centuries-old sign.

In Hong Kong Cantonese, a bat holding a coin is known as fuk syu diu gam cin (蝠鼠吊金錢), or "bat [hanging with] a gold coin". Both the bat and the coin have special meanings in Chinese culture, and get their meanings from a unique form of word play.....

In Chinese culture, the upside-down bat symbolizes fortune and prosperity. The Cantonese words for 'bat' and 'good fortune' are both fuk (蝠 is the traditional character for 'bat', or fu in Mandarin. The traditional character for good fortune is 福.) and are pronounced with the same tone, but the inherent meaning is different. An upside-down bat is a particularly auspicious omen since the word for upside-down in Cantonese, dou (倒; dao in Mandarin) is the same for 'arrive' (到). So, thanks to this word play, the upside-down bat means that good fortune has arrived! In addition, the words for "bat descending from the sky" (蝠子天來, or fuk zi tin lai) sound exactly the same as "good fortune descends from heaven" (福子天來)!

The same word play also comes into play (no pun intended) for coins. The Cantonese word for coin is cin (錢, or qian in Mandarin). This also happens to be the same word for 'before' (前). In ancient China, coins had a hole in the center known as an eye. Many coin amulets carried by Chinese feature a bat around the eye of the coin. As you may have guessed, "bat on [the eye of] a coin" (蝠在眼錢, or fuk zoi ngaan cin)  is a pun for "happiness before your eyes"!

It's these puns and the connotations for good luck and fortune that made - and still make - the sign depicting a bat holding a coin so desirable for pawn shop owners.

Traditionally, Chinese store signs were - and still are - painted green. Green and red are traditional Chinese colors and in olden times, were used to paint the old wood signs. To this day, these colors are still prominent in the Hong Kong landscape at night. Pawn shops have used these colors in their signs for many centuries.

The old Chun Yuen Pawn Shop sign.


The oldest pawn shop sign in Hong Kong is undoubtedly the wooden Chun Yuen sign propped against a wall at the Chun Yuen Pawn Shop in the old village of Yuen Long in the New Territories. Chun Yuen is Hong Kong's oldest pawn shop which was in business during Qing rule in the early 19th century until just after the end of World War II. The building that housed this shop is still in existence and is officially one of Hong Kong's historical sites. This sign is a perfect example of a traditional Chinese store sign. 

Some other famous pawn shop signs in Hong Kong include the sign for the Tai Fat Pawn Shop, which can be seen at the top of this post. This shop is located in the Jordan area of HK's Yau Tsim Mong district. Also lighting up the night sky in Hong Kong are the dazzling red signs of the Wan Chai district's Tung Tak Pawn Shop, the traditional and modern-style signs of the Tak Wah Pawn Shop on Douglas St. in Central, and the massive red
sign advertising the Woo Cheong Pawn Shop, which is also located in Wan Chai.

Apart from the change from wood to neon lighting, the basic pawn shop sign in Hong Kong has gone relatively unchanged over the centuries and still adorns the front of many a shop to this very day!

If you know of any other HK pawn shop signs that are worthy of a mention or have any additional info about these signs, please tell us more about them!

Links:
http://primaltrek.com/impliedmeaning.html (Meanings of characters and charms in Chinese culture.)
http://primaltrek.com/blog/2011/09/11/store-signs-of-ancient-chinese-coins/ (Another page from Primal Trek about ancient Chinese coin signs.)
https://eportal.cityu.edu.hk/bbcswebdav/users/chunhso3/moment/p_shop.htm (Interesting website about the pawn shops of Hong Kong and Macau and their culture.)
http://studiogario.blogspot.com/2012_01_01_archive.html (Drawings of and a little history about Chun Yuen Pawn Shop from Hong Kong artist Gary Yeung.)
http://www.asianhistoryblog.info/2012/11/a-history-of-asias-neon-signs.html (Blog post about Asia's neon signs.)

(Image copyrights. Tai Fat sign: HenryLi. Chun Yuen sign: Chong Fat. All images used via Wikimedia Commons.)

POSTED BY Josh
DISCUSSION 1 Comment

One Response to : Hong Kong's Pawn Shop Signs

  1. I have a Macau Pawn Shop Sign very similar to this but in much better condition. Provide an email and I will send a photo. It has been hanging in my business and now my home for many years and has brought me tremendous luck. I now live in Hawaii and perhaps it is time to pass it along to someone else.

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