One of the earliest forms of business in Hong Kong, pawn shops are situated in almost every district of the city. Pawnbroking in Hong Kong has a history as long as that of the city itself. Before major banks established themselves in the then-British colony and won the confidence of local residents, pawn shops served as early Hongkongers’ main financial institutions. Customers would invest their wages in valuables that could then be stored at pawn shops and used as collateral against which they borrowed sums of money. Within a certain contractual period of time, the pawner could then redeem the items for the amount of the loan, plus an agreed-upon amount of interest. If the customer does not repay the loan with interest then the belongings are kept and sold off to second-hand and jewellery shops. Jewellery, watches, fur and clothes are the most common items pawned.
In Hong Kong, you'll see an occasional glimpse of a pawn store sign featuring an upside down bat holding a coin. You may also notice 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 Hong Kong Cantonese, a bat holding a coin is known as fu shu diao jin qian (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)!
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. Pawn shops were some of the first businesses in Hong Kong and when they go, so goes Hong Kong’s history.