The history of the Hong Kong Five Cent - the dao ling 斗令

The five cent or 'dao ling' is an integral part of Hong Kong’s history, and was in use from as early as 1866 right up to 1980. The term 'dao ling' comes from the fact that market wholesalers made bids using a code comprising six different Chinese characters - zi, chen, dao, ma, su and ling - representing the digits from 1 to 6 respectively. As the early five cent coins with an 80% silver content weighed 0.036 taels, it was thus commonly known as the 'dao ling' (for the digits 3 and 6).  

As the reigns of the monarchs changed, so too did the material for the coin - from silver to nickel to nickel-brass. Throughout this time the design of the coin has largely remained unchanged, with the sovereign’s effigy on the front of the coin and the legend ‘Hong Kong Five Cent’ in Chinese and English on the reverse. Small in size and handy to use, its longevity as well ubiquity meant that it played a big part in everyday life in Hong Kong.

In Jan Morris’s book ‘Hong Kong’, she provides a description of the colony in the 1880s, which forty years after its foundation and with the British Empire approaching the height of its power, had found its own exotic place as the easternmost of all Her Majesty’s dominions and become in British eyes "The Pearl of the Orient".

In the 1880s the colony was booming – ‘we have passed though out bad times’, Jardine’s taipan told Kipling, ‘and come to the fat years’.  Morris describes the place as the Compleat Colony as many of the instruments of modern life had been established - a Chamber of Commerce, the Post Office, as well as four issuing banks.

A Silver Start

  Illustration of the Hong Kong Mint courtesy of

The Hong Kong Mint had in fact already been set up in 1866 (on Sugar Street in Causeway Bay and a Mint Dam on the slope of Mount Butler was constructed to supply water to the Mint). The first Hong Kong five cent was issued there as a silver coin of 80% fineness in accordance to the silver standard of the time.

However the poor reception of the coins as well as continued debasement of silver caused huge losses to the Mint which was closed less than two years later in 1868.

Subsequently it was Heaton’s Mint in Birmingham that continued to mint the 80% silver Hong Kong five cent and many of the coins carry the letter H as a mintmark. This carried on through the reign of Edward VII (1901 to 1910) and George V (1910 to 1936) although 1933 was to be the last year the five cent was minted in 80% silver, as in 1935 the silver standard was discontinued.

Change to Nickel

During George VI’s reign (1936 to 1952) nickel became the metal used for the coin. The 1941 issue is particularly rare – it was dispatched from the UK to Hong Kong in several shipments. One fell into Japanese hands, another was melted down by the British and a third was sunk during enemy action.

The final Five Cent coin in Nickel-Brass

In Queen Elizabeth II’s reign the material for the coin was changed to a nickel-brass alloy. The endearing pop song ‘Kowloon Hong Kong’ by The Reynettes of 1966 featured the dao ling in its chorus:

Gong Hei, Gong Hei Fat Choi,

Lai See Dao Loi, Dao Ling Mm Oi!

(Congratulations and be prosperous, now give me a red envelope, but not with just a five cent inside!)

By the 1960s and 70s the face value of the five cent coin had steadily declined to the extent that it was fast becoming redundant. In 1980 the coin ceased to be used as currency and was officially demonetized although there was a limited mint of non-circulating five cents in the auspicious year of 1988 which became a collector’s item.