Rat bins – HK Electric/Gas connection and to a colloquial Cantonese “affectionate” term

IDJ sent the English version  of what the piece calls Rat Boxes. Mak Ho Yin has kindly translated it.

「香港電燈公司和煤氣公司與老鼠箱關係密切,因為老鼠箱是掛在電燈柱上的。由於華人極為抗拒(滅鼠人員)進入私人住宅,政府於是鼓勵華人在殺死家中的老鼠後,將鼠屍放在就近的老鼠箱內,由衛生部門職員每日收集清理。老鼠箱掛在電燈柱一景,還衍生了一句香港獨有的俗語「電燈柱掛老鼠箱」,以形容夫妻二人中丈夫瘦削兼且二人身高矮懸殊。」
Hong Kong Electric rat boxes - IDJ

Ho Yin continues: This paragraph raised my curiosity on the topic of rat bins so apart from translating it I also did a quick check about its history. I have no memory of seeing them hanging at lamp-posts, and I found my memory is correct because the Urban Council (the government department at that time responsible for sanitary policies) decided in 1975 that rat bins would be dismantled gradually, and would be abandoned altogether after 1978.

The reason for stopping using rat bins was that when there was no outbreak of plague (as in the 1970s), dead bodies of rats could be handled by the public in the same manner as normal domestic garbage, while in the case of an outbreak of plague, treatment of live or dead rats had be done by well-equipped, trained sanitary personnel.

To put it simply, the government found the rat bin no longer useful. I call it “rat bin” instead of “rat box” as the paragraph calls it, because some old photos show that they were painted with the words in white “RAT BIN” and numbered.

While my translation is based on the paragraph’s content, I would like to point out that some information may not be very accurate or that further research is required before drawing a conclusion”.

1. Literally the phrase is better said as “a lamp-post hanging a rat bin” or “a rat bin hung at a lamp-post”. It’s not so popular today, although it is still known by mid-aged Hong Kongers. Probably in one or two decades from now no one would understand.

2. “This gave rise to a charming Cantonese expression, used solely in Hong Kong,…“: I have found an early Chinese newspaper report in 1937 which shows that this phrase had been used by persons at Shunde city in Guangzhou province. Where was the rat bin invented? We could not rule out that this idea might be imported but not HK – original.

3. “…a charming Cantonese expression…the couple are liable to finds themselves affectionately called ‘the lamp-post and the rat box'”: this phrase is not all a charming or an affectionate one. Instead it is negative. You can imagine the use of this phrase from a group of gossipers who deride a couple with a large difference in height.

Actually in the newspaper report in 1937 a mention was made about a suicide case in which a man jumped into a river to his death as the love between his girlfriend and him was not acceptable by his girlfriend’s parents, the reason was that they were derided as “a lamp-post hanging a rat bin”. The pressure for this ill-fated couple from the relatives / tradition /social norm was much heavier, because it was the woman who was taller than the man, which was weird / unacceptable under the traditional male-dominant Chinese mentality.

That’s why even nowadays some tall ladies (or their parents) still worry that they couldn’t find a husband!

HF: Gwulo has a photo from about 1935 and further information about rat bins: gwulo rat bin 

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