Pop Cantonese: Word of the Month – 朝行晚拆 HK-Style Pop-Up

Hong Kong has had street hawkers for as long as it has existed as a city, and part of its hawker culture is a fleet-footed adaptation to the realities of urban life. Every day, workers assemble stalls in markets like Ladies’ Street and Temple Street, stock them with goods and, several hours later, pack everything up again at night. It’s a familiar enough scene that it has coined a common Cantonese expression: ciu4 hang4 maan5 caak3 (朝行晚拆) – literally “use in the day and take apart at night,” but perhaps more accurately represented by the English expression “pop-up.”

pop-upIt’s a term that embodies Hong Kong ingenuity, the way people here create modular spaces that make up for their small size and other restrictions. While there are no definitive records on the expression’s origins, it may well have been derived from another idiom that means the exact opposite: maan5 hang4 ciu4 caak3 (晚行朝拆) – to “use at night and take apart in the day.” That particular saying describes people who were forced to create makeshift sleeping arrangements in the notoriously small living spaces of Hong Kong at night. Different order, similar concept.

Even the government seems to have embraced the idea behind the expression. It stopped issuing licences for hawker stalls in the 1970s, and while there are 5,341 of them left today, most of them can only be passed down to direct family members, and the government actively buys back licences in order to clear the roads. Unlike those on Ladies’ Street and Temple Street, most hawker stalls are permanent, and they have been described as fire hazards and obstructions.

Under the current regulations, hawkers could one day disappear from Hong Kong’s streets, although government says it has “no intention of banning such hawking activities, according to a public consultation in 2012. At the time, then-Secretary for Food and Health York Chow proposed a solution. Encourage ciu4 hang4 maan5 caakto be implemented in densely populated areas that have a high concentration of hawker stalls. Interestingly, the official English translation of Chow’s comments refers to the cumbersome “dismantling of stalls and removal of all commodities after close of business” – not nearly as catchy as the four-word Cantonese phrase.

pop-upWhile the expression may seem to only apply to a very specific set-up, it’s more common than one might think. This year, as part of a project for the STEM Education Centre established by the Education Bureau, a group of teachers and students created a planetarium made of cardboard and iron clips, which can be ciu4 hang4 maan5 caak3 – set up during the day, dismantled at night. Some district councillors who meet with their constituents at pop-up offices use the same expression to describe their method of work.

Around the world, pop-up shops and restaurants are all the rage, and co-living and co-working spaces are becoming the new norm. With pop-up culture embedded into its very language, perhaps Hong Kong was a pioneer in that all along.

Photo: Courtesy Joshua Lin

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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