What do you see in this photo?
What: A rat bin!
If you zoom in to the lamp-post, at about the same height as the young boy to its left you'll see a small round container fastened to the post. It is labelled 'No 109', and is a prime example of a government-issue rat bin.
The idea was that anyone who found a dead rat in the area should drop it into the bin. Twice a day, a government rat collector would visit the bin and take away the little rat corpses.
Why the interest in dead rats? The rat collectors would take them...
"... to the Government Bacteriologist. Each rat is labelled with the number of the bin from which it is taken, and if found to be plague infected, a special survey is at once made of the block of houses in the immediate vicinity of such bin..." 
That quote comes from a document dated 1913, when Hong Kong's plague epidemics in the 1890s and early 1900s were recent history. I believe that rat bins still used into the 1950s. Do any of our older readers remember seeing them?
Who: The trays of goods for sale likely belong to the man standing behind them. He's got quite an array of little vases and trinkets. I wonder if he was aiming at the local market or the visiting tourist?
Behind him there's a boy with his back to us, engrossed in his book. Is the book stall selling books, and he's waiting for a customer? Or was it like one of those post-war stalls where you paid to read the comic books, and read them right there and then?
No sign of the rat-collector...
When: It's from the same collection as the photo of Altadena, dated to the mid / late 1930s.
Where: Somewhere you could set up your wares in the street, so probably a pedestrian lane around Central. Cat Street maybe?
I'm always interested to see what you'll find in these photos. For instance I thought last week's photo was about the Taikoo docks & sugar factory. And we did get some very interesting comments about them, but we also heard about the ship in the photo that was a wartime oil tanker, and how two streets in North Point got their name.
So how about this week's photo, what do you see?
- Page 165 of "Plague, SARS and the story of medicine in Hong Kong". View in Google Books.
Re: Rat bins
As far as I could recall some of the Rat Bins were still on selected poles even in the early 1970's, especially in older districts.
The banner in front of the bookstore of the top right says 'buy Chinese Western books'. It sounds like the second half of a sentence, so there must be more than just plain old sale of books going on.
I suspect this place used to sell, rent and trade books, in whatever language. According to my grandma, she regularly rented books in the 1930s, and when the going got tough, she sold the family collection of books in such stalls .
I remember these bins there used to be one behind by place on Chatham Road, and I remember seeing a man put a rat into the bin so my friend and I had a loook inside. The rat was in a yellow liquid with a smell not too different to Detol but quite a bit stronger. At least this is what I can recall. I know I never looked into another one since. This would be about 1961 or 62.
Bins & banners
Thanks for the extra information. So they were definitely still in use into the 1960s. T, any idea if there were just the disused old bins left in the 1970s, or were they still being used as well?
Breskvar, sounds almost like a Pawn Shop arrangement, where you bought books in the good times, then sold them back when money was tight.
The location is likely
The location is likely Hollywood Road near junction of Lyndhurst Terrace. The book stall sold old painting, calligraphy & printed matters. In early 60s, casual conversation with a lady thereat revealed that the business remained unchanged long before WWII.
From this photo, there is no adjacent structure (shop) to its left (it was a back alley at that time), the depth of the shop, the nature of business and the lamp pole, all these matches my memory of the vicinity.
the guessed location is marked in attached map
I think that hand written banner could be ‘收買中西書藉' (buying Chinese and/or English books) or ’買賣中西書藉' (Buy and sell Chinese and/or English books). But we cannot see what was on top of the word 買 there. As you can see, the Chinese word 買 (buy) and 賣 (sell) look very much alike.
There used to be a rat bin
Rat Bins in the 1970s
Unfortunately my attention in the 1970's was not being focused on such things so I could not recall much. I guess they are difficult to come by these days as most of the old lamp post had been replaced in the past two decades or so.
There was a rat bin on a lamp
There was a rat bin on a lamp pole on Leighton Road outside St Paul's School in the late '60's. Never tempted to look in though!
Thanks for the extra info about the book stall sign, and the rat bins - don't think I'd have looked inside either!
Thanks for the map too - I didn't think we'd be able to get that close to the location, so that's a bonus. One possibility for matching the old location is to go and see if the lamp post in the photo is still there. Obviously it'll be a newer version (without rat bin!), but we have seen other present-day lamp posts in the same location as they were in old photos.
Rat bins, 40s & 70s
A couple more replies by email. John Bechtel writes:
I was born in HK in 1939 I lived on Kent Rd in Kowloon Tong we had a rat box on our street and we also had gas street lamps in the 1947-1958 period. I remember we put a few rats in the bins. I was head prefect in KGV in 1958.
And thanks to KK Chan for pinpointing the end of the Rat Bin in Hong Kong:
Refer to the 3rd NOV 1975 WAH KIU YAT PAO, “according to the expert opinon, the Urban Council decided to phase out all the rat bins gradually 〔depends on the usage in different districts〕and will be finished by 1978”
An old Cantonese saying
When I was a kid in the 70s, people often laughed at a tall guy and short girl couple by saying 電燈柱掛老鼠箱(rat bin hanging on a lamp post), very seldom I hear people using this phase nowadays.
Rat bin hanging on a lamp post!
電燈柱掛老鼠箱 (rat bin hanging on a lamp post) was still in use in the late 90s. I'm 6'2" and my wife (5'3") will never forget an old woman who said this phrase very loudly while we were queuing at a restaurant. It's rude and coarse and I love it, and use it whenever I get the opportunity.
I actually have a rat box (in addition to my wife) which I've offered to the HK Museum of History with a request that they attach it to a suitable lamppost.
Great website; time to dig out those old photos and maps.
1968 Rat Bin
re: 1968 Rat Bin
I also noticed one partly visible at bottom-right of this photo:
Thanks, interesting read.
Thanks, interesting read.
It’s tempting to think the letter ‘H’ stood for ‘Hong Kong’ and the letter ‘K’ stood for Kowloon followed by the individual number of the rat bin. Wonder what the code was for the New Territories and the outlying islands. Can anyone confirm/refute hypothesis?
Just by chance I saw this (on MMIS) in the Hongkong Telegraph from Thursday, September 4, 1902:
THE RAT RETURN for the week ending the 25th ult. is: City of Victoria, 690, infected rats, 27; Kowloon, 54, infected rats, 1. Total 774, infected rats, 28.
(note: 774 should be 744, so it's a typing error)
Rat Bins 1936
From The China Mail 1936-01-31 (found on MMIS)
PLAGUE MENACE IN COLONY
INCREASE IN RAT POPULATION
ELABORATE PRECAUTIONS BY AUTHORITIES
That there has been a great increase in the rat population is borne out by that fact that during the year ended December 31., 1935, a total of 192,251 rats, of which 21,820 were taken alive, were collected and destroyed by the Sanitary authorities, as compared with 175,687 destroyed in the course of the year 1934. This shows an increase of 16,564.
Of the total number of rats 94,676, of which 14,938 were taken alive, were collected on the island, while the remainder, of which 6,882 were caught alive, were collected on the mainland. All the rats collected were sent to the Public Mortuary for examination, but none were found to be infected with plague.
Systematic rat-catching, in the course of which bird-lime boards and ordinary rat-traps were used, was carried out throughout the past year, besides periodical house cleansing.
According to the Mr. A. K. Taylor, Chief Inspector of the Sanitary Department, the number of rat-bins distributed in the Colony is 922. Of this number, 432 bins are distributed on the mainland.
"I wish to bring to the notice of the public”, stated Mr. Taylor, "that they should not throw dead rats into the streets. These rat-bins have been placed at various points in the streets for the purpose of receiving the carcasses of dead rats.”
For the last six years no cases of the plague have been reported in the Colony.
There were quite a few used book stores around Hollywood road. They usually sold chinese curios too. A lot of them came from China during the end of of last dynasty as a lot were carried out from the palace by various means in a time of wars and turmoil. You can still find a lot of these shops on Hollywood road without the books of course. As trgan mentioned, the chinese characters are likely just " ’買賣中西書藉'" or "buy and sell chinese and english books". As for book rental, they usually rented some popular titles like martial arts novels and romance novels by some famous authors. May be comic strips (連環圖) too. Of course the rental books would be arranged neatly in order of the author names. This bookstall looks like a mess. Therefore it probably just buy and sell used books without book rental.