The Gods of Gambling

It has been said many times that the Chinese are a nation of gamblers. The stereotype is deeply embedded in not only western attitudes toward the Chinese, but in Chinese perception toward themselves. It is supposed to be because of this inclination to gambling that an entire genre of film, unique to the region, has grown around master gamblers.

We begin with a question which has been asked many times: Why do the Chinese love to gamble?

A Love of Gambling

One answer, noted by many casual observers, is that throughout Chinese history, a large percentage of the Chinese population has been dirt poor. So they hope for a miracle, a streak of luck, a big win.

H.A. Giles, the noted Sinologist, wrote in his Chinese Sketches that the Chinese are constantly at gambling because of a general ennui and simple lack of anything better to do. They had, in his opinion, no national game, they aren't big on athletics, and their chess is nothing to speak of. Apparently Giles is a strong believer in the maxim "Idle hands are the Devil's tools."

A more probable theory is based on the idea that gambling is closely related to the Confucian world-view. Confucianism stresses securing favors from the gods by praying to them, and sacrificing to them. In this way the Chinese hoped to gain favor for their endeavors, in short, to have good luck. Luck and the quest for good luck becomes a fundamental component of national life. It is this strong belief in Luck that leads many to gamble their meagre savings in the hope of becoming rich. So a love of gambling can be said to follow naturally from this belief in Luck.

But how does this hope for luck differ from that same hope that runs through people all over the world? Isn't it this same irrational hope against the odds that compels millions of people to play the lottery every day in every nation of the world? Hard statistics that show the Chinese to gamble more than other ethnicities is scant.

In fact, some statistics show just the opposite. A study printed in The WAGER, The Weekly Addiction Gambling Education Report, did a telephone survey of Toronto's Chinese community. The phone survey found that 79.6% of the community reported having gambled in their lifetime. This may seem like a lot until compared with the prevalence of gambling among the general adult population across Canada. Ontario had an 84% prevalence rate, Alberta 93%, and British Columbia 97%!

On the other hand, according to the Australian Psychological Society, anecdotal descriptions, observational accounts, and media reports suggest that asians are over-represented compared to other ethnic groups within the general population of gamblers. Asian communities are believed to be heavily involved in gambling, but interestingly, it depends on what kind of gambling is going on. Slot machines do not appear to be favored by Asian gamblers, but casino table games are. This observation coincides with the gambling films of Hong Kong, in which I don't believe I have ever even seen a slot machine.

From reports of historical observers in China and Hong Kong in the late 1800s, everyone gambles, for everything. Even the simple act of buying bread from a street vendor becomes a gambling game. Instead of simply paying for the bread, the patron would gamble with the vendor, willing to risk getting nothing for the chance to possibly win three times as much. Coolies would bet on anything and everything as well, from how many stones are in a pile (the ancient gambling game of Fan-Tan), to which shaft of his vehicle a fly would land on first.

Whatever the truth of the stereotype of the Chinese gambler, Casinos are taking notice. In order to woo the asian market many of the big casinos are adding dealers who speak Cantonese or Mandarin, posting signs in Chinese, and hiring big name Chinese singers and comedians to perform at their hotels. Sometimes this works all too well: witness the casino in Australia that recently teeters on the edge of bankruptcy because of a huge string of wins by a high-roller from Taiwan. Even Chow Yun-Fat's God of Gamblers is rumoured to be inspired by a real life, highly successful gambler.

Gambling through the Years

Although gambling was prohibited in China throughout much of its history, it was nevertheless fairly widespread. Gambling was especially concentrated in the coastal regions under the Qing dynasty. The coastal areas were also the foreign concessions of Canton, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macao. It goes without saying that the Chinese were not the only ones gambling in these areas. An observer traveling in the opening years of the 20th Century noted, of the westerners in China, that they were

Profane, intemperate, immoral, not living among the Chinese, but segregating themselves in foreign communities in the treaty ports, not speaking the Chinese language, frequently beating and cursing those who are in their employ, regarding the Chinese with hatred and contempt,--it is no wonder that they are hated in return and that their conduct has done much to justify the Chinese distrust of the foreigner. The foreign settlements in the port cities of China are notorious for their profligacy. Intemperance and immorality, gambling and Sabbath desecration run riot.

And so it was in these cantonments, where for a long time no women were allowed to live, that foreign sailors and mercenaries and Chinese coolies shared together a common passion: gambling.

In Shanghai, gambling remained illegal and powerful gangs grew up to control the sport. 1930s Shanghai makes Al Capone's Chicago look like a tame place. The opium dens, gambling hells, and brothels continued to do a terrific business until the Communists took over, at which point they were all shut down, making Shanghai a much safer place in the bargain. Macao, on the other hand, run by the Portugese and thus out of China's control, decided to legalize gambling in the mid 1800's and never looked back. As a result of being the only legal harbour for gambling, the concession is now famous for its casino and is known as the "Monte Carlo of the east."

In Hong Kong the gambling question has always been a hot topic for debate. Hong Kong followed China in the early years of the colony, making gambling illegal, until J. Bowring became the plenipotentiary Governor. He looked to Macao, which recently legalized gambling, and he decided to emulate them. He felt little need in keeping laws that could not be enforced, since everyone was gambling regardless of the law. However, the British parliment soundly rejected any ease in gambling restrictions. Governor Richard MacDonnell tried again, ten years later, in 1867. He started up a licensing system for gaming establishments, mainly to try to stem the corruption and bribes that were flowing freely through the government as a result of the restrictions on the books. Eleven public gaming houses were opened.

These freely open gambling houses did not last long, however, being too much for the home government to bear. Of course, gambling was illegal in England, at least, for the lower classes. The upper classes could and did gamble large sums on games all the time in their private clubs. Parliment was dismayed by the enormous amount of money the license fees generated for the Hong Kong Treasury, 'the profits of vice'. The tide turned and the gambling houses closed, bringing back the old system of gambling and police corruption.

Eventually, one form of gambling was made legal: betting on horseraces. The Hong Kong Jockey Club makes hundreds of millions of dollars per year through its gambling facilities. Apparently the British have shaken off the disdain they had for 'the profits of vice,' since a large slice of the money goes directly to the Hong Kong government. In 1992 it was estimated that 15 percent of total government income from all sources comes from betting. Of course illegal gambling dens continue to flourish. And there are special gambling boats, which pick up passengers in Hong Kong (and Singapore, where gambling is similarly illegal), and pilot out to international waters to gamble free from the constrictive rules of individual countries. Both God of Gamblers and God of Gamblers II feature gambling aboard vessels of this type.

Just as gambling became prominent in the foreign enclaves of coastal China, a mirror image of this was occuring on the other side of the Pacific. Chinese workers were imported into the United States in great numbers in the years following the civil war, as an alternative to slave labor, to work plantations, and mainly to work on the Trans-Continental railroad. These workers were typically without their families, without much money, and in debt. Although there were many kinds of recreation in the towns that they lived in, linguistic and cultural barriers, as well as racial discrimination, kept the Chinese from enjoying these recreations even if they could afford it. As Chinatowns began to spring up, some distance away from the center of town, gambling games such as the lottery and Fan-Tan provided not only a hope for a sudden windfall of much needed cash, but also provided much needed social cohesion for the community.

One of the earliest popular representations of the Chinese comes from the poem, "Plain Language from Truthful James," by Bret Harte, published in 1870. The poem is from the point of view of a miner, who with his friend sat down for a game of Eucre with a Chinese worker named Ah Sin. Ah Sin knew nothing about the game, and the miners were going to fleece him for all that he was worth. But it transpires that Ah Sin keeps winning the games, and they realize angrily that Ah Sin is cheating better than they are. Truthful James ends his account:

Which is why I remark,
.. And my language is plain,
That for ways that are dark,
.. And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar,--
.. Which the same I am free to maintain.

Bret Harte teamed up with Mark Twain to write a play based on Ah Sin which ran for a year with mixed results. The playbills featured Ah Sin on the cover, balancing an ace on his nose, and holding four more in his hand. The original God of Gamblers.

Games of Skill and Chance

Mah Jong, Fan Tan, Pai Gow, Sic Bo -- these are the popular gambling pasttimes of a nation, and if you're not sure what the hell they are, read on.

Mah Jong: The classic Chinese gambling game. The game is played similarly to Rummy, except instead of cards, tiles are used. To win, a player must assemble four sets of threes (either three of a kind or a sequence in the same suit) and an extra pair. In addition, there are a number of special hands that can be made which score higher than the usual amount of points and have exotic names such as "Heavenly Peace," "Moon from the Bottom of the Sea," or "Thirteen Orphans." The game is played differently from country to country, province to province, even household to household. There are plenty of official rule sets in use, including International, Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, Hong Kong, and numerous American variants. Many families play at least once a year, when they are together for the New Year's celebrations. But even at times like those, among family, Mah Jong is still played for money. The stakes are usually much reduced then, however. For a long time, Mah Jong was banned in Communist China. Bowing to inevitability, the government finally allowed the game, at the same time publishing an 'official' set of rules by which it should be played.

Pai Gow: Pai Gow is played with a set of 32 Chinese Dominoes. The dominoes are a bit larger and a bit thicker than American Dominoes. In addition, the pips for the number 1 and the number 4 are in red, the rest are in white. This has no significance to the game, however, it is merely following the tradition of Chinese Dice, which are red on the 1 and 4. Each player in Pai Gow is dealt a hand of four dominoes, which he must arrange in two pairs, one high and one low. House rules typically state that you must beat the banker with both the high hand and the low hand in order to collect. Jackie Chan in his biography My Story talks about his addiction to gambling, and among all gambling games, he cites Pai Gow as the ruin of the most families and fortunes, including his own. The trouble lies in the fact that the banker changes with each round, one of the players taking on the role. The player who becomes the banker for a round puts up a certain amount of money as a bet. Then, all other players may put up the same amount of money. If the banker wins, he stands to collect a great deal, but if he loses, he must pay out to everyone who bet against him, which can lead to devestating losses.

Fan-Tan: A traditional and very simple pebble-counting game. "Fan" means "to turn over" (a bowl or cup) and "Tan" means "to spread out" (the stones). The banker places a quantity of small stones, coins, beans, or whatever under a bowl, while the players place bets on one of four squares, numbered 1, 2, 3, and 4. Then the bowl is removed and the stones are removed, four at a time, until there are four or less remaining. Winners are those who placed bets on the numbered square which corresponds to the actual number of remaining stones. Bets are typically payed out 1 to 1. There are 1 to 4 odds to win a game of Fan-Tan, making it a popular game with a low risk factor.

Belankas: This unusual game comes from the Javanese. A four-sided top, marked with a crab, flower, fish, and prawn, is spun, and covered with a bowl. Players place their bets on squares marked with the same images. If you bet on the shape which lands face up when the top has stopped, you win. Very similar to Fan-Tan in terms of pay outs and odds. This game is seldom seen in the movies, but I believe a variant of it is played at the beginning of God of Gamblers 3 -- The Early Years.

Sic Bo: This is the classic dice game that features in every gambling film. In Sic Bo, three dice are shaken in a cup and placed hidden under the cup on the table. Bets are made. The simple bet is high or low. Low is when the sum of the dice is less than 10, high when it is greater. Winning this kind of bet pays 1 to 1. Guessing the actual numbers thrown make for much higher payoffs. In the gambling genre, great gamblers are supposed to be able to 'hear' the way the dice fall in the cup, and are able to control the numbers they throw when they are shaking them. Failing that, having a magical power to see through the cup is the next best thing. A gambling movie just isn't a gambling movie without at least one fierce round of Sic Bo.

Card Games: Nothing suprising here. Blackjack and five-card Poker are the usual games. In five-card Poker, the first card is dealt to each player face down, the next three face up, and the last one face down. Between each card, players have the option to bet, raise, call, or drop out. These are the games that master gamblers can, after much experience, actually gain an edge against the house. But in the classic gambling films, it usually comes down to "Show Hand," in which each player bets all that they have, regardless of amount, then the remaining cards are dealt out. "Show Hand" pretty much eliminates all skill from the game, making it purely one of chance.

The Gods of Gambling

The Gambling genre did not just begin with the movie God of Gamblers, although because of its importance it certainly seems that way. It is without a doubt that there can be defined two different kinds of gambling films, those that came before God of Gamblers, and those that came after.

The gambling film had already become a genre of its own in the early 70's. A film like Giant of Casino may be a typical example. This type of gambling film combined the 'revenge' ethics of the kung-fu movies of the time with a more modern setting and a few games of poker. This type of film, and the corresponding stereotype of the Chinese as born gamblers was parodied in Michael Hui's Games Gambler Play in 1974. But most of the gambling pictures made during this time are largely forgettable.

Enter Wong Jing, the king of the gambling film. Beginning with the incredibly successful God of Gamblers in 1989, he continued in the early 90's to make a string of very successful gambling films featuring some of the biggest stars in Hong Kong today: Chow Yun-Fat, Andy Lau, and Stephen Chow. Although Wong Jing produces a wide variety of films today, he does not forget that it is the gambling genre that made him his fortune, and he returns to it regularly.

The early 90's saw a spate of imitators of the Wong Jing gambling films, all of which were trying to capitalize on the popularity of the gambling genre. Films like King of Gamblers, Queen of Gamblers, and Gambler vs. Gambler flooded the market. The returns on this sort of film dwindled as the quality went down, and now Wong Jing stands alone among Hong Kong producers in keeping the gambling genre alive.

Click here for reviews of all of the gambling movies on this site (updated regularly): The Gods of Gambling.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Mah Jong books, Casino gambling books, history books:

KOHNEN, Dieter. Mah-Jongg : Basic Rules & Strategies. Sterling Publications, 1998.
An excellent introductory guide to Mah-Jong. Includes Chinese and American rules.

THOMPSON, Patricia. Game of Mah Jong Illustrated. Kangaroo Press, 1990
A light and easy instruction manual for Mah Jong with lots of pictures.

SHANGHAI: Second Dynasty Activision CD-ROM.
Sometimes it's hard to get enough people interested in playing Mah-Jong with you. In fact, it's nearly impossible most of the time. Thank God for computer solitaire. This is probably the best and most comprehensive of the computer Mah-Jong programs. It includes several different variants, and of course it also includes the solitaire matching game Shanghai. Recommended.

ORKIN, Michael. Can You Win? the Real Odds for Casino Gambling, Sports Betting, and Lotteries. W H Freeman & Co., 1991.
A sobering look at your chances for winning. May make you decide gambling is best when its a spectator sport.

PATTERSON, Jerry L. Casino Gambling : A Winner's Guide to Blackjack, Craps, Roulette, Baccarat, and Casino Poker. Perigee, 2000.
If you're going to spend your money, might as well get some strategy tips.

SPENCE, Johnathan D.The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds. Norton, 1999.
This book is good. Very good. A survey of western ideas about China. Found the information about Ah Sin here. A reference I will return to, I have no doubt.

WELSH, Frank. A Borrowed Place : The History of Hong. Kodansha, 1996.
An excellent, if dry, history of Hong Kong. An indispensible reference.

LINKS

I was for the most part frustrated in my attempt to uncover hard statistical data about Chinese gamblers. What information I did find seems to indicate that very little actually exists, at least in English.

One of the better sources I found which studies gambling and gambling addiction is The WAGER (Weekly Addiction Gambling Education Report).

If you're not addicted to gambling, well then here's a few sites to get you started. A2Z Las Vegas has everything you need to plan a trip there, an old article on TIME.com lists Asia's casinos and amenities.

Mah Jong is the classic Chinese gambling game, and there are a lot of sites out there to get more information. The best place to start is Jim May's Mah Jong Museum, a treasure trove of historic information. However, the site is centered specifically on the history and rules of Mah Jong in the west. Nine Dragons Software has a page which details Hong Kong rules of play, Steve Willoughby has a page featuring Taiwanese rules. ICA Pai Gow has a site full of information, links, and strategies for Pai Gow.

You can't talk about the Hong Kong gambling genre without talking about Chow Yun-Fat. An excellent Yun-Fat fan page is Leigh's A Free Man in Hong Kong. She has a great story about her detective work in trying to uncover the 'real' God of Gamblers. To find out more about the man behind the camera, Neil's Wong Jing site will give you the scoop, along with an extensive filmography.

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 01, 2000.


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