Pop Cantonese: Word of the Month – 士多 Store

Hongkongers often have fond memories of the things we grew up with. If there is nostalgia for old tea houses or retro-style cha chaan teng, there is also nostalgia for the si6 do1 (士多), the “store.”

Si6 do1 is yet another English loanword that Hong Kong has made its own; it is the local Cantonese pronunciation of the word “store.” A more formal way of saying it would be soeng1 dim3 (商店) which is closer in meaning to “shop,” but since Hong Kong’s colonial days, Hong Kong Cantonese has developed and evolved differently from Cantonese in the mainland.

Si6 do1 is not only a borrowed word, it is a symbolic part of Hong Kong’s past and is deeply ingrained in the childhood memories of many. While the English word for store refers to a place for the storage of household provisions, perhaps originating from the Old French estore, which also referred to provisions for a fleet or navy and army; it was later commonly used to refer specifically to a “place where good are kept for sale.”

In Hong Kong, most of the places considered si do1 are tuck shops, places where snacks such as ice cream and drinks are sold. That particularly British term possibly comes from the concept of “tucking” into a meal, or perhaps it is a legacy of the Tuck family, which owned numerous shops of this kind in England between 1780 and 1850.

The glory days of Hong Kong’s si6 do1 were the 1960s and 70s. People growing up during that time will remember shelves filled with biscuit tins, and sweets and dried fruits displayed in big glass jars, not to mention the all-important ice box, where the cool soda drinks in glass bottles were stored. Often there was a bottle opener tied to the fridge to allow you to immediately open favourites such as Fanta, Coca Cola, Cream Soda, 7-Up and Vitasoy. One brand that has almost disappeared nowadays is Green Spot (綠寶橙汁), a brand that originated in the US, but was produced in Thailand and known for leaving your tongue bright orange. Another long-gone favourite was the Lily (百合) brand of bottled red bean dessert drinks that you had to slurp up with a thick straw.

There were also sweets to buy one by one from the jars; packets of chocolate or blueberry “cigarettes” to unwrap carefully; hard fruit candy presented in packets shaped like eyeglasses; soda pop candy that fizzed in your mouth; and huge sweets in the shape of a diamond, moulded onto a plastic ring so that you could wear it and eat it at the same time.

Sometimes si6 do1 also sold small trinkets or little toys like plastic bubble blowing sticks, as well as flowers, fruit, take-away breakfast or telephone cards and stationery. Others also provided printing services, the use of a phone line or the sale of lottery tickets.

shopMost children’s after school memories are of passing by the si6 do1 on the way home to grab a soda and a packet of chips. To make a little extra income, some si6 do1 owners added a small game centre in the back room with pinball machines or even a mahjong table, becoming an after school meeting place. In the mornings, they would set up a folding table outside so that people could socialize while having a snack on their way to school or work.

Things changed by the mid-1980s. The rise of big supermarkets and corporate convenience stores made it hard for many of these si6 do1 to survive. Nowadays, many have disappeared, and most of the rest have shrunk into a fraction of the size they once were – no more pinball machines or jars of dried fruits. Some are trying to bring si6 do1 back in the form of trendy nostalgic shops, like the one at Mei Ho House in Shek Kip Mei, and the Hong Kong Museum of History has a small part of its permanent exhibition dedicated to it.

Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese. 

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