Besides traditional porcelain-lidded teacups, dim sum trolleys and enthusiastic servers, Sheung Wan’s Lin Heung Teahouse is the proud user of one more age-old relic: a Chinese numbering system known as “flower code” (花碼字).
The vertically scripted daily specials scribbled onto red plaques hanging on the walls (pictured), are footnoted with what seem to be incomprehensible prices at the bottom — written in flower code.
These symbols were the Chinese shorthand for numbers, before Arabic numerals rolled around. Inspired by the ancient calculation method of counting rods, the symbols allegedly originated in the Southern Song Dynasty in Suzhou, and consisted of a simple set of numerals to ensure that merchants from around the region and of all reading proficiencies could learn to read it.
Though these symbols had various names such as Suzhou Mazi (codes of Suzhou), Fan Zhai Ma (foreigner’s code), Cho Ma (grass code) and Tsing Zhai Ma (betel nut code), the name Fa Ma (flower code) stuck in Hong Kong. Up to the late 80s and early 90s, flower code was the prominent numbering system in banks, local institutions, and even mini buses.
This is how to read flower code:
The numbers one, two and three are all vertical strokes, but can be displayed as horizontal strokes to avoid confusion: for example, 123 is written as〡二〣(to avoid six consecutive vertical strokes) and 3,112 is written as 〣一〡二.
And if the symbols〡二〣 were written over the characters 十元 (ten dollars), then it would be read as $12.3. If the characters were written over 一百元 (one hundred dollars), it would read as $123.
Today, only retro institutions and grocery shops would still list their prices in flower code — but now you’ll know how to decipher all the symbols!