“Look, a rat bin on a lamppost!”
In the mid-1950s, if one happened to pass a couple who had a significant height difference between them, you might hear them remark: “Look, a rat bin on a lamppost!” (電燈柱掛老鼠箱). The saying emerged in the second half of the 20th Century and referred to the hundreds of rat bins suspended on lampposts around the city.
The origins of rat bins stem from the bubonic plague that broke out in Hong Kong in 1894. Within five months, with a fatality rate of 93.7%, the plague had killed over 2,000 people, causing a massive flux of the city’s population to flee to safer lands. The plague was spread by rats carrying fleas that transmitted a bacteria called Yersinia Pestis.
The colonial government did its utmost to disperse those living around Sheung Wan - believed to be the epicenter of the plague - away from overcrowded slums and unsanitary tenement buildings. The plague did not die out quickly and remained a constant concern for the population until the mid-1920s. From its outbreak to 1929, it killed approximately 20,000 people.
The outbreak spurred massive action by the colonial government to clean up Hong Kong’s unsanitary streets. While various sanitation facilities like modern toilets were established around the city, perhaps the most interesting, and frankly genius, were the creation of rat bins. It was considered your civic duty to discard any rat you found in the street into a nearby rat bin. Around 500 to 1,000 rats were disposed of every day. Not only did the bins reduce the risk of the plague spreading but allowed scientists the ability to detect any risk of a future outbreak. The last case was recorded in 1929.