June 8, 2009

Tam Buong or Spittoon aka Potty

Here's a response to popular demand on the topic tam buong or pang pang or spittoon. My children called up asking me to write about one of their favourite segments of their childhood! How they were toilet trained - Foochow style.

Every child would be given a small tam buong (blue or red and plastic) when he was ready to be toilet trained in a Foochow home. The mother would always clean the potty well and sometimes even disinfect with dettol!! Most of the time the potty would be put out in the sun to dry in the early morning. The heat from the sun is a very good germ killer. As far as I know that is a very Foochow habit.

The child would often carry the potty to his mother or grandmother when he was ready to ease himself. I used to think that this was very much a Pavlov's Dog behavioural moment. It can be so humurous at times.

Two of my children actually grew very attached to their personal potty after a while and could not do their business in another child's potty. (smile) I use reminded to bring their potty each time we travelled long distance. And it became a very good habit actually.

the spittoon is quite universal. The United States saw the use of the spittoon in the court and many other public areas.

A Chicago courtroom scene, mid 1910s. A spittoon is seen on the floor at bottom right.A spittoon (or spitoon) is a receptacle made for spitting into, especially by users of chewing and dipping tobacco. It is also known as a cuspidor (which is the Portuguese word for "spitter" or "spittoon", from the verb "cuspir" meaning "to spit"), although that term is also used for a type of spitting sink used in dentistry. Cuspidors are still manufactured today, and commonly seen in gymnasia adjacent to drinking fountains.

Spittoons are flat-bottomed, often weighted to minimize tipping over, and often with an interior "lip" to make spilling less likely if they tip. Some have lids, but most not. Some have holes, sometimes with a plug, to aid in draining and cleaning.

Chinese historical accounts provide good evide of the usage of spittoons in court as well as in homes. The Qing dynasty saw the use of a gold spittoon by the Emperor whenever he held court. Deng Siaw Ping (a smoker) required the use of spittoon whenever he met with foreign dignitaries.

However it was the common spittoon that was used for the bed chambers that caused the most amusement in literature.

A Foochow saying which goes like this " If you know how to lead as a first wife you would not afraid of old age because the younger wives would empty your tambuong for you."

A disobedient husband was always asked to kneel with the tambuong on his head with a feather duster on top as a mark of punishment from the wife. He would have to apologise for coming home late for example. If you had read the comics of Old Master (Lau Fu Tze) you would have come across some of these caricatures.

Sibu coffee shops used to have spittoons underneath each table for spitting into or for cigarette butts.

A daughter in law was often subjugated by her mother-in-law when she was trained to empty the latter's spittoon or tambuong every morning. Her submissive character would often be trained up in this way. How the two women would get along could be seen from the daughter-in-loaw's endurance in emptying the tam buong every day for perhaps the rest of her life under the same roof as her mother in law.

If Foochow husbands in the past were seen to pamper their wives by emptying their tambuong they would be the talk of the town for years.

Most tambuongs in the past were hidden under the bed. So they did not see daylight most of the time!!

Some samples of spittoons from China:

There was one very sorrowful story of a husband who was fed up with his quarrelsome wife and mother. One day after physically abusing his wife he upturned the tam buong which was full of urine in their bedroom and stormed out of the room. He never came back to the family home after that. The wife said that she could never get rid of the stench in her room for a long long time. His final action was considered by many as a "bad luck" act. Well it is up to you to draw up conclusions of this snippet.

Today a mini spittoon is used by the Peranakans to spit their post pinang(betel nut) chewing spittal into. And many spittoons have become just decorative or ritual items or even recycled items in the garden.

I believe the modern attached bathroom in any Foochow home is a very welcome feature especially by the man of the house!!

1. Wikipedia
2. Flickr Photos


Daniel Yiek said...

In Phuket's resort (Indigo Pearl), the spitoon was part of the industrial look decor.

In wine tasting in USA, there's a spitoon (bucket) to spit out wine after tasting.

Yan said...

Read here on another story of tambuong.


And I commented there,

You won't believe it, for that "Tam Pui" my dad changed my Chinese name! I remember when I was a small girl, probably 5 years old, one day, the family bought a "pot" that seemingly looked the same one above in the picture. Four Chinese words were printed - it read "hu te yan hua" (meaning butterfly beautiful flower". The "yan" is the same as my name "yan". My siblings started teasing me that my name was printed on the "pot"! I was upset. So dad said, you can use the "yan" as in the bird "swiftlet" in Chinese. And here I am - as free as a bird, not as "beautiful" as a flower. And thanks to that "pot"!

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Daniel - Thanks for visiting and the additional interesting facts. I am looking for tambuongs to photograph now...

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Dear Yan
This is indeed a fantastic story. Your father must have been a very literate and understanding father. But I am sure your siblings would remember the story for always.
Have you ever found a similar tam buong later in life?
This tambuong is a very intriguing topic.
Thanks for your imput.

Yan said...

Yes, dad was a school teacher or was he a principal before? He wrote nice Chinese characters. And he gave each one of us beautiful names. Nine of us! I especially like my younger sister's name - "Tee" or "Zhi" which means "wisdom".

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Thanks Yan. I am sure you miss your Dad.

Me too. Mine passed away when I was 16 and there were so many of us with the youngest being only 11 months old. It was a difficult time for us. But my mother made sure that we got our education.

sarawakiana said...

Zhi is a good name. So many girls I know have Yien/yan and Zhi for their names.
I get very upset when beautiful names are "wrongly written " when poor parents went to register their children's names at the Registrar of Births....sad cases...

Anonymous said...

I remember my mother and older sisters train the younger ones to pee by whistling to help them relax their bladder!
Thanks for an interesting recollection about potty training.

Greenspot said...


See what I have found.


peacemaker88 said...

Thanks for a most interesting topic!!
This is really a segment of our childhood!!

sarawakiana said...

Yes I did that for my children even during the confinement. Somehow the whistling is very interesting way of coaxing a child to urinate.
thanks for the memories.

sarawakiana said...

Thanks for the reference. I enjoyed browsing through the photo bucket....

sarawakiana said...


Thanks for visiting and commenting. Do come again.

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