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11: Pawnbrokers

Few probably among our readers have had much experience on the subject of the present sketch--a Chinese pawnshop. Indeed, for others than students of the manners and customs of China, there is not much that is attractive in these haunts of poverty and vice. The same mighty misery, which is to be seen in England passing in and out of mysterious-looking doors distinguished by a swinging sign of three golden balls, is not wanting to the pawnshop in China, though the act of pledging personal property in order to raise money is regarded more in the light of a business transaction than it is with us, and less as one which it is necessary to conceal from the eyes of the world at large. Nothing is more common than for the owner of a large wardrobe of furs to pawn them one and all at the beginning of summer and to leave them there until the beginning of the next winter. The pawnbrokers in their own interest take the greatest care of all pledges, which, if not redeemed, will become their own property, though they repudiate all claims for damage done while in their possession; and the owner of the goods by payment of the interest charged is released from all trouble and annoyance.

Pawnshops in China are divided into three classes, one of which has since the days of the T'ai-p'ings totally disappeared from all parts over which the tide of rebellion passed. This is the _tien tang_, where property could be left for three years without forfeit, and to establish which it was necessary to obtain special authority from the Board of Revenue in Peking. At present there are the _chih tang_ and the _ssu ya_, both common to all parts of China, and to these we shall confine our remarks. The former, which may be considered as the pawnshop proper, is a private institution as far as its business is concerned, but licensed on payment of a small fee by the local officials, and regulated in its workings by certain laws which emanate from the Emperor himself. A limit of sixteen months is assigned, within which pledges must be redeemed or they become the property of the pawnbroker; and the interest charged, formerly four per cent., is now fixed at three per cent. _per month_. Before the license above-mentioned can be obtained, security must be provided for the existence of sufficient capital to guard against a sudden or a fraudulent collapse. For any article not forthcoming when the owner desires to redeem it, double the amount of the original loan is recoverable from the pawnbroker. Should any owner of a pledge chance to lose his ticket by theft or otherwise, he may proceed to the pawnshop with two substantial securities, and if he can recollect the number, date, and amount of the transaction, another ticket is issued to him with which he may recover his property at once, or at any time within the original sixteen months. Pawn-tickets are not unseldom offered as pledges, and are readily received, as the loan is never more than half the value of the deposit; and tickets thus obtained are often sold either to a third person or perhaps to the pawnbroker who issued them in the first instance. Formerly, when the interest payable was four per cent. per month, it was a standing rule that during the last three months in every year, i.e., the winter season, pledges might be redeemed at a diminished rate, so that poor people should have a better chance of getting back their wadded clothes to protect them from the inclemency of frost and cold. But since the rate of interest has been reduced to three per cent. this custom has almost passed away; its observance is, however, sometimes called for by a special proclamation of the local magistrate when the necessaries of life are unusually dear, and the times generally are bad. The following is a translation of a ticket issued by one of these shops, which may often be recognised in a Chinese city by the character for _pawn_ painted on an enormous scale in some conspicuous position:--"In accordance with instructions from the authorities, interest will be charged at the rate of three per cent. [per month] for a period of sixteen months, at the expiration of which the pledge, if not redeemed, will become the property of the pawnbroker, to be disposed of as he shall think fit. All damages to the deposit arising from war, the operations of nature, insects, rats, mildew, &c., to be accepted by both sides as the will of Heaven. Deposits will be returned on presentation of the proper ticket without reference to the possession of it by the applicant." Besides this, the name and address of the pawnshop, a number, description of the article pledged, amount lent, and finally the date, are entered in their proper places upon the ticket, which is stamped as a precaution against forgery with the private stamp of the pawnshop. Jewels are not received as pledges, and gold and silver only under certain restrictions.

The other class is not recognised by the authorities, and its very existence is illegal, though of course winked at by a venial executive. Shops of this kind, which may be known by the character for _keep_, are very much frequented by the poor. A more liberal loan is obtainable than at the licensed pawnbroker's, but on the other hand the rate of interest charged is very much more severe. Pledges are only received for three months, and on the ticket issued there is no stipulation about damage to the deposit. No satisfaction is to be got in case of fraud or injustice to either side: a magistrate would refuse to hear a case either for or against one of these unlicensed shops. They carry on their trade in daily fear of the rowdies who infest every Chinese town, granting loans to these ruffians on valueless articles, which in many cases are returned without payment either of interest or principal, thereby securing themselves from the disturbances which "bare poles" who have nothing to lose are ever ready to create at a moment's notice, and which would infallibly hand them over to the clutches of hungry and rapacious officials. The counters over which all business is transacted are from six to eight feet high, strongly made, and of such a nature that to scale them would be a very difficult matter, and to grab anything with the view of making a bolt for the street utterly and entirely impossible. In a Chinese city, where there is no police force to look after the safety of life and property, and where everybody prefers to let a thief pass rather than risk being called as a witness before the magistrate, it becomes necessary to guard against such contingencies as these. As things are now, pawnshops may be considered the most flourishing institutions in the country; and in these establishments many even of the highest officials invest savings squeezed from the districts entrusted to their paternal care.