Desperate housewives and the lure of chap ji kee

The story of the game known as 12 Cards sheds light on the Chinese and their love of gambling

In 1977, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, explaining the need for state-run lotteries such as Big Sweep and Toto, said: "If you do not run (the lotteries), the chap ji kee man who has always swindled the people of their money is still there. It is the history of Singapore. The Chinese who travelled overseas are the biggest gamblers you can find in the world. Because to leave China was to gamble. In Manchu China if you returned you were beheaded. Because you were bringing in dangerous foreign ideas. So to leave China for Nanyang was a gamble."

Mr Lee's words point to the perennial thorny question on the control of a vice that is intertwined with the early beginnings and social history of the Chinese community in Singapore. While the allure of chap ji kee has faded, it had, for more than half a century, been the most entrenched and widespread form of illegal public gambling in Singapore.

THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL

In 1823, following his return from a four-year administrative stint in Java, Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, issued orders for the suppression of gambling in the colony. Severe penalties were introduced such that "whoever games for money or goods shall receive 80 blows with a cudgel on the breech, and all money or property staked shall be forfeited to Government". This was a move to remedy what Raffles perceived as the moral laxity of the administration under the first resident, William Farquhar, who had set up gambling, opium and spirit farms against Raffles' wishes, where revenue from the sale of gambling licences was used for public works.


ST ILLUSTRATION: CHNG CHOON HIONG

According to the memoirs of Abdullah Abdul Kadir, a teacher of the Malay language, the Chinese - for whom gambling was a major pastime - "sighed and drew deep breaths (with) a grim look on their faces as they grumbled and abused Mr Raffles for preventing them from gambling". Abdullah, who not only worked for Raffles as a scribe and interpreter but was also an admirer of the man, castigated the naysayers for failing to recognise that the measures were for their own good. The temptation of quick money often led to debt and crime. In his defence of Raffles, Abdullah declared: "(It) is obvious that gambling ruins people, deceives them and puts wicked ideas into their minds. Gambling is the mother of vice, and of her three children the eldest is named Mr Liar, the second Mr Thief and the third Mr Thug... it is these three persons who ruin the world."

Chap ji kee was called the "housewives' opium" as it was an easy way of injecting some excitement into their lives, and to relieve the tedium of domestic chores and child-minding. Although the women played for low stakes and did not realistically expect a windfall from chap ji kee, the prospect of winning just that little extra cash was attractive enough for the average housewife with fairly modest wants - "that special meal, a new dress for baby or that much-desired gold ring for herself".

The new regulation did not spell the end of gambling in Singapore. The new resident, John Crawfurd, who shared the views of his predecessor, saw gambling as a necessary evil and an invaluable source of income to cover the administrative costs of running the settlement. In 1820, when the gambling farms began operating under Farquhar, the amount collected was 5,275 Straits dollars. The figure rose three-fold to $15,076 in 1823 after Crawfurd reinstated the gambling farms; and it further doubled to $30,390 in 1826, reaching $71,283 a year later. In its time, the revenue yielded from the gambling farms exceeded all other forms of excise revenue.

It was not until 1829 that gambling was outlawed for good in the Straits Settlements and gambling farms in Singapore were closed down. Despite the threat of prosecution, the enthusiasm for what was regarded as "one of the curses of the Colony" continued unabated. The prohibition of gambling only served to drive it underground, where it thrived due to the weakness and ineffective enforcement of the law.

"The love of gambling is inherent in the Chinese. Men, women and children are addicted to the vice," wrote J. D. Vaughan in The Manners And Customs Of The Chinese In The Straits Settlements (1879). Around the time of his writing, there were reportedly no fewer than 10 types of gambling games in Singapore, including lotteries, cards, dice and dominoes. Colonial administration often held the view that gambling was an inborn trait of the Chinese. However, the observations of G.T. Hare, former Assistant Protector of Chinese in the Straits Settlements, suggest how the Chinese penchant for gambling could be better understood:

"One's length of days here is, to (the Chinese) mind, but a long game where the cards are always changing. Gambling seems to clear his mind and brace his nerves. It is training ground to him for the real gamble of life."

The socio-economic circumstances of immigrant life inadvertently conditioned the propensity of the Chinese to gamble. Fleeing poverty and unrest in their homeland in the 19th century, Chinese immigrants arrived by the boatload, swelling the ranks of unskilled labourers in Singapore. In his study on Chinese rickshaw coolies, James Warren asserts that gambling "was an inevitable fact of life in a migrant community bereft of family life (and) comprised largely of restless adult men with time on their hands and money to burn".

With few options for wholesome recreational activities, gambling went hand-in-hand with drinking, opium smoking and prostitution - the "four evils" - as the main sources of entertainment and escape from the drudgery of everyday life for these men. Earning a pittance for back-breaking work with little rest, they nevertheless dreamt of returning to China with a fortune; the hope of winning a game or lottery was a psychological balm that made their grim existence more bearable.

It was only a matter of time before the gambling habit exacted its price. Having squandered their hard-earned money, the men borrowed heavily from their employers to feed their gambling addiction. Mired in debt, they invariably pledged to continue working for their creditors until the sum was paid up. Without personal savings, it was impossible for sons, brothers and husbands to fulfil their moral duty of providing for their dependants back home and this failure became the cause of untold family strife and tragedy. It was no surprise that, when driven to desperation, many resorted to theft, violence and crime - and, when all was lost, suicide.

THE BRAINS BEHIND THE BUSINESS

Writing at the end of the 19th century, Hare likened gambling in Singapore to epidemics that "break in waves from time to time over the surface of Chinese life, carrying trouble and distress with it".

He thought it expedient to document the latest fever among the immigrants and Straits Chinese over a new form of gambling called chap ji kee "before it passes away out of men's minds and becomes one of the dead ghosts of the forgotten past". Chap ji kee is Hokkien for 12 Cards where chap ji means "12" and kee refers to the card. While its origins can be traced to the game of Chinese cards, popular in the southern Chinese province of Fujian, the evolution of chap ji kee into a large-scale underground lottery in Singapore was an innovation that Hare attributes to Peranakan or Straits Chinese women (nonyas).

According to him, chap ji kee was first played in Johor before catching on in Singapore in 1893; it was suppressed only three years later when the authorities began stamping it out.

The game operated in the manner outlined until 1894 when, as Hare claims, it became much altered by the nonyas who emerged as its chief organisers and top patrons. As the popularity of the game grew, chap ji kee was modified in order to evade detection by the authorities and make it difficult to prosecute the offenders. To circumvent the law, the promoters would engage a number of collectors who went from door to door taking bets from private homes, thus obviating the need for punters to gather in one place to stake their money in person. To avoid being caught with evidence of the lottery on their bodies, collectors rarely carried the chap ji kee cards with them and further devised their own cryptic notations to keep track of various accounts. For example, the value of 10 cents was denoted by a circle, and a dollar by a cross inside a circle. Their symbols were combined or doubled to represent higher values.

Likewise, chap ji kee characters were represented in a variety of ways such as written and pictorial symbols, strings of beads, numerals - even the number of spots on a certain type of handkerchief carried by nonya ladies could surreptitiously function as a code.

THE MODUS OPERANDI

After gathering the bets, the collectors would assemble for the drawing of the lottery at a place and time decided in advance by the producer. Houses that afforded some means of quick escape through a back door or over the roofs of neighbouring houses onto the streets were usually selected as the venue.

With informants hired to keep a lookout for the police, the game would commence after the front entrance had been secured and the whole party was ensconced in a room upstairs or on the ground floor at the back of the house. The packets containing the stakes and betting memoranda would be laid on a table in front of the promoter, who would proceed to announce the winning character from the selected card. The group quickly dispersed once the winnings were paid out.

The role of collector was greatly sought-after for the steady income it brought; collectors typically earned a 10 per cent commission on every winning stake. Profit margins were high as some lotteries did not restrict the amounts staked. It helped of course that the clientele comprised mainly affluent Straits Chinese ladies with ample leisure time and money to spare. Their healthy appetite for gambling came to public attention in several notable police court cases: In 1909, for instance, when 11 nonyas were arrested in a house in Tank Road for playing chap ji kee, the magistrate - who felt that the maximum fine of $25 was grossly inadequate as punishment - sagely advised their husbands to let the women be imprisoned for two weeks instead of paying a fine. In another interesting case, the wife of a wealthy Chinese gentleman pawned her jewellery to settle a $50,000 chap ji kee debt - a sizeable fortune even by today's standards - and had the items replaced with cheap imitations.

The success of the chap ji kee lottery spawned a franchise of sorts. Enticed by the lure of easy money, enterprising individuals opened sub-agencies or branch firms, declaring the same winning number announced by the main syndicate. Unlike the principal chap ji kee, the sub-agency was open to the general public and run by men as well as women. In time, an elaborate three-tier system of promoters, sub-promoters and collectors was established.

Over time, chap ji kee further evolved to attract a wider audience: The Chinese characters were replaced by the numbers 1 to 12, ensuring that even the illiterate could play, and instead of betting on a single character, punters would stake their money on a pair of numbers between 1 and 12. This meant that a punter had to correctly guess two winning numbers. At 1 to 144, the odds of striking seemed more remote than before, but to sweeten the deal, the dividend was increased to 100 times the size of the stake. To attract as many punters as possible, the minimum bet would be as low as one cent, which over time increased to 10 cents.

The combination of small bets and high returns made chap ji kee irresistible to low-wage workers and housewives. Punters did not need to pay the full amount of their bets immediately as collectors generally extended some form of credit. It was easy to place bets as anyone could qualify as a collector - the stall-owner in the market, the hawker on the street corner, the bored housewife and even the washerwoman. The system worked because the arrangement was based on tacit trust: Collectors never issued receipts, and most punters neither knew who drew the winning numbers nor where the draw took place. The winning numbers would be scribbled on walls or pillars in designated areas or conveyed by word-of-mouth in the streets. A collector who was the proprietor of a coffee shop even used a wall clock to display the results - the hour and minute hands would point respectively to the first and second winning numbers.

The odds were always rigged in favour of the syndicates as they would regularly choose the least-backed number as the winning one. This was achieved by having each sub-promoter draw up a schedule containing all the betting configurations and stakes that the collectors had gathered. These were then consolidated into a master schedule that enabled the promoter to easily determine the combination with the lowest stakes among the 144 possible permutations. Such a practice guaranteed consistent profits for the syndicate.

THE LURE OF CHAP JI KEE

Chap ji kee flourished in the post-war decade with estimated takings of a whopping half a million dollars a day. The scene was dominated by two syndicates - Lau Tiun, which controlled the Tiong Bahru and Upper Serangoon Road areas, and Shanghai Tai Tong that held sway over the rest of Singapore. In 1948, the authorities brought the latter to its knees with the arrest and deportation of its ringleaders.

However, the break-up of this powerful syndicate managed to disrupt the chap ji kee business for only five days before others swiftly stepped in to fill the vacuum. The former associates of Shanghai Tai Tong split into two syndicates - Sio Poh, Hokkien for "Small Town" and Tua Poh, Hokkien for "Big Town", which operated in the areas north and south of the Singapore River respectively. By the 1970s, the Lau Tiun, Sio Poh and Tua Poh syndicates were ranking in a combined annual turnover of $100 million. It is little wonder that chap ji kee had been called a "colossal swindle".

Aside from the enormous sums of money involved, the lottery was an outright scam since a win was determined by deliberate choice rather than random chance.

Yet, punters remained undeterred. In 1973, the New Nation tabloid interviewed 200 gamblers and found that 95 per cent knew how the winning numbers were derived. Quite incredulously, when asked the reason for their continued participation, the respondents, most of whom were housewives, explained matter-of-factly:

"Chap ji kee is the only form of gambling that we can take part in daily without too many objections from our husbands, unless we bet heavily. The stakes allowed are small. It is convenient and it happens daily. All we have to do is tell the collectors, some of whom are people we meet every day on our market rounds - the vegetable sellers or fishmongers".

Chap ji kee was called the "housewives' opium" as it was an easy way of injecting some excitement into their lives and to relieve the tedium of domestic chores and child-minding. Although the women played for low stakes and did not realistically expect a windfall from chap ji kee, the prospect of winning just that little extra cash was attractive enough for the average housewife with fairly modest wants - "that special meal, a new dress for baby or that much-desired gold ring for herself".

The principles of an honest game did not concern the (wo)man in the street. In their minds, chap ji kee was still based on chance since the combination of numbers that was likely to attract the least stakes was anyone's guess. The syndicates, which pocketed at least 80 per cent of the annual turnover, were clearly the indisputable winners - so long as their luck held.

THE DEATH OF CHAP JI KEE

The authorities tried to stamp out chap ji kee for years but to no avail. The key to the game's longevity lay in the well-organised syndicates and their covert operations as well as the intricate network of collectors who did the dirty work on behalf of the promoter. It would take two decades and the progressive tightening of the law and relentless police raids throughout the 1960s and 1970s before chap ji kee rackets were smashed. The syndicates gradually disintegrated as the kingpins and their close associates were arrested or went into hiding.

In addition, the creation of legal lottery operator, the Singapore Pools, in 1968 and the introduction of state-run lotteries beginning with Toto that year, gradually chipped away the syndicates' customer base. Since history has shown that gambling cannot be completely eradicated, the Government took a pragmatic approach and introduced legalised gambling options; at least this way, gambling could be regulated and the revenue channelled towards worthwhile and civic causes. The first project funded by Singapore Pools was the construction of the National Stadium. Today, the Tote Board (Singapore Totalisator Board), which was formed in 1988, channels the surpluses from these state-run lottery operations to support public, social or charitable causes, as well as the growth of culture, art and sport in Singapore.

While it is entirely plausible that chap ji kee might still be played in some isolated circles today, there is little chance of the game ever regaining its former glory. To recall Hare's words, chap ji kee has been cast "out of men's minds and (has become) one of the dead ghosts of a forgotten past".

  • The writer is an associate librarian with the National Library of Singapore.
  • This article was first published in BiblioAsia, a quarterly journal of the National Library Board. https://www. nlb.gov.sg/Browse/BiblioAsia.aspx
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 29, 2015, with the headline 'Desperate housewives and the lure of chap ji kee'. Print Edition | Subscribe