written out of history

An official report in 1923 estimated that more than 90 per cent of the Chinese population in Hong Kong were illiterate.

The illiterate, however, still had occasional correspondence needs. True to ingenious form, a Chinese substitute arose - the professional letter writer. Seated at a small folding table under

the covered pavement arcade of a side street, the professional scribe would provide covering letters for remittances back to the heung ha (home village), read letters out loud, fill in forms and write auspicious characters and couplets to be hung over a door.

A once-common sight on Hong Kong's streets was a mah-je (a domestic amah from across the border), immaculately dressed in a white blouse and black trousers, dictating a letter or listening intently to the contents of one. Privacy was impossible and the professional letter-writer often provided the first shoulder to cry on when bad news came.

Street writers were generally men with some education who, for whatever reason, had been unable to progress further. Many were only marginally more literate than their customers but, with the age-old Chinese reverence for the educated, scribes were accorded respect. Some invested in typewriters, which made filling in forms more efficient and the look of official letters much more impressive. And, of course, a typed letter cost more than a handwritten one.

A few letter writers still operate in some backstreet areas - Wan Chai and Yau Ma Tei are good places to spot them - though most only do so as a service to remaining elderly clients, and then for only a few hours a week.

In a decade - probably less - pavement scribes will have vanished completely from Hong Kong. But are they another part of the city's 'collective memory', to be mourned by heritage enthusiasts? Like the disappearance of night-soil buckets on the stair-landing, the decline of professional scribes is - when you think about it - a success waiting to be celebrated.

Near-universal literacy is one of post-war Hong Kong's greatest social achievements. For all the loudly trumpeted deficiencies in the local education system - and there are plenty - now, more than at any other time, most Hong Kong people can read. Few places in the world have done as well, in so short a time.