u Street Letter Writer. | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

u Street Letter Writer.

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u Street Letter Writer.
Date picture taken (may be approximate): 
Sunday, January 1, 1956


Greetings, and thank you Andrew.  This scene brings back memories of my grandmother having letters prepared to be sent to her relatives in Guangzhou and North America.  She could not write or read owing to the way she (and other girls of her generation) was raised in Taishan.  My other grandmother, also from Taishan and moved to Hong Kong relatively earlier in life, was literate.  I continue to keep her writings in a book full of Chinese phrases, poems and passages from newspapers.

The young man in the photo was likely having an English letter prepared, or completing a form which was also the man's service.  Regards,  Peter

Hi Peter, It's interesting to hear about how your grandmothers had different experiences. Learning to write must always have been difficult for Chinese children and I admire how they cope with learning such a complex written language, being told years ago that it was necessary to learn something like 2000 characters.  Not sure whether that is a false memory.  I once asked an Australian friend who was totally fluent both in Mandarin and in reading and writing Chinese characters whether it was quicker to read the same news item in English or Chinese - but I forget his answer!  Any thoughts?  I took similar photographs in 1981 and 1987 somewhere along the tram route in Wanchai or maybe Shaukiwan.  As you suggest, customers were perhaps wanting something written in English. I wonder whether English people ever sought the services of Chinese letter writers to translate something into Chinese?  Best wishes Andrew

Coffin shop and scribe

Coffin shop and scribe, by Andrew Suddaby

Pavement Letter writers
Pavement Letter writers, by Andrew Suddaby


Thank you Andrew for the feedback.

Not an expert on languages so here is just my impression. A person, who knows two languages to the same extent in terms of knowledge and practice, takes about the same amount of time in reading newspaper contents that cover the same subject. Difficult Chinese words (those with numerous strokes) will slow me down or lose me if I had never learned the word.  English word-challenge is less frequent, but strict adherence to proper grammar can lead to more words. Product information and tool instructions in French tend to have more words than in English but I am not an expert to assess whether the former takes longer time to read.

I don't think English-speaking residents would seek service from street letter writers for translation.  Accuracy and consistency would be their main concern.  Where they operate, either office or factory, they have workers and Chinese colleagues they can rely on.   

A bit off the subject, I think this is true for people who know two languages. Our brain will go instantly back to our mother tongue when doing addition and subtraction especially multiplication and division, all because we memorized the times-table in Chinese, even though the person is in the midst of an English conversation.

Just an observation, the two men outside the coffin shop could be co-workers or shop neighbours. To properly present himself, a letter-writer would not wear a sleeveless t-shirt. That spot is not an attractive stop for letter customers.

Regards, Peter

Thank you Peter for your interesting and succinct reply. I think that is the conclusion which my friend came to. The correct use of grammar in verbal writing does lead to fewer misunderstandings but, over time, the ‘rules’ can change.  Spelling is far less important, as the context in which a word is used will often indicate its meaning. An interesting experiment to do is to cover up the bottom half of a line of English print. A fluent reader will still understand the sentence.  Similarly, a quick and experienced reader’s eyes and brain will take in a whole but small group of words without focusing on each word in sequence. I guess that it’s a human form of the predictive text software that our computers now have - and we all know how that can lead to problems!  ‘Speed reading’ is probably not so useful in the case of complex scientific or technical matters. Varying degrees of Dyslexia are quite common in English writers, whose reading ability is often fine.

I have always wondered about the scene outside the coffin shop. Your explanation makes sense and the part figure on the right seems to confirm your suggestion of the scene just being men chatting. The too casual clothing of the ‘letter writer’ had escaped me, and the inappropriateness of that place for a letter writer should have dawned on me.

Best wishes, Andrew


Thank you Andrew for the informative comments.  Always enjoy reading them!  May I say you qualify to teach English (and other subjects no doubt) to people of all ages anywhere.  Regards,  Peter

Thank you Peter, The information that you and others add to the photographs is always read with great interest. It's now more than sixty years since I spent that year in Hong Kong, but in some ways it seems like yesterday.  Most of the old men I know, who did that part of their compulsory National Service there, tell me that it was the best and most interesting time in their lives.  Perhaps a nostalgia for one's youth comes into it, but HK in the 1950s was definitely a very different and fascinating place.  Best wishes, Andrew