12 April 2008

How I Won From All The Mahjong Kakis

In case you are wondering about the meaning of the word kakis in the title of this blog, someone who plays mahjong is known locally as a mahjong kaki. Kakis is simply the plural of kaki. It is a Malay word that means "leg" or "foot". Frankly, I do not see any connection between "mahjong" and "leg" apart from the fact that a mahjong table has 4 legs and you need 4 people to play the game.

My late mum loved to play mahjong. She played with like-minded neighbours in a spacious common area next to the staircase on the 4th storey of our SIT flat. This was in the 1960s. I loved to sit beside her to watch the game. There was another reason why I loved to sit beside her. (Read on to find out why.)

As a result, like what Kenny Rogers sings in the song The Gambler, I "got to know when to hold them" (the mahjong tiles, that is) and when to throw them away. In other words, I grew up being quite good at the game but being quite bad as well, if you consider playing mahjong as a vice.

Each pok (session) of game would last one or two hours on the average. Every player started with $2.90 in chips. If the player lost all the chips, he/she would have to fork out $3.00 in cash to settle the account. Why the extra 10 cents? The answer is that the "missing" 10 cents went into what Chun See mentioned in Peter's mahjong post as "chow soi" (imposing tax).

(Don't you ever scoff at the seemingly small amount of mahjong money at stake. $3.00 may seem very little money nowadays as it may not even buy a bowl of noodles in a food court. To put it in perspective, the monthly rent of our smaller than 500 square-feet SIT flat was just $24. It was what my dad could just afford with his monthly salary of about $150 which had to feed a family of 7 people.)

The mahjong game usually lasted from morning till late at night. On weekends, it would even be "thong siew" i.e. played throughout the night till the next day, which meant that the players went without sleep for 48 hours or more at a stretch. If that happened, several dollars of "tax" could be collected for that mahjong session.

So what happened to the "taxes" collected this way? The funds were used in 2 ways:

1. Every year, during 中元节 (Zhongyuan Jie or Ghost Festival) on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, a portion of the money would be used to buy offerings and food for the spirits. After the festival was over, the food items would be apportioned to all the regular mahjong kakis.

2. Every one or two hours during the mahjong game, I got a chance to earn some pocket money. It worked like this:

The players would give me 30 cents to buy coffee for them - 10 cents was officially declared as my reward while a kettle of black coffee with sugar from the coffeeshop downstairs cost 20 cents. The coffee was enough to fill 5 small enamelled tin cups. Sometimes, I even got to drink the fifth cup.
Even as a young kid, I knew how to maximise profits. I added 3 tablespoonfuls of sugar from my mum's sugar jar and bought only 10 cents of black coffee (without sugar) from the coffeeshop. This way, I earned 20 cents with every kettle of coffee that I bought. Over time, I saved up quite a tidy sum. And that was how I beat all the mahjong kakis and ended up as the ultimate winner.


peter said...

yah Victor, same thing like what you describe I had to do BUT I never got to benefit from that "choi soi", - I am very sure of that. Dont know why. Maybe I was too young to know then.

How come you never serve Chinese tea? U know I had to boil water also. In those days, the Tiong Bahru pre-war SIT flats were supplied with gas and gas hoppers. This was how I learn to flick a match-stick (I can do with style)and maybe explain how I took to smoking when I was in school (way way before NS).

Maybe because I watch the aunties smoke but they smoke a special tobacco wrapped in a thin white paper. I help the aunties to fetch the tobacco. For men they smoked SAILOR or 555 brand from a tin case.

Since my grandfather smoked pipe, I had to use a match-stick to lite up his pipe. Later I picked up the skills of dismantling a pipe, cleaning the inside and to put tobacco inside the "burner".

etel said...

GD, after reading ur entry, i finally know how mahjong is played. LOL

Sivasothi said...

Hey Victor,

I have use "kakis" for friends in a some network, as a collegial version of the idiom "kakitangan".

Literally translated to "hands and feet" it is used to mean the staff of an organisation. In Indonesia, it apparently means members of a criminal organisation!

fr said...

I think the 'taxes' was sometimes given to the house owner who premises was being used for the gambling session. In that case the owner had to supply refreshments.

I guess you could earn about a dollar a day. Pure guessing, hee hee, nothing to do with power of analysis or old ginger.

Victor said...

Peter - In my time, we used charcoal and stove for boiling water and for cooking. To start a fire, it was even more troublesome than just lighting a match. I would need to arrange the charcoal around a little piece of black cylindrical stuff with little red "hairs" at one end. It is called a fire-starter.

Don't know why but the mahjong kakis preferred black coffee over other types of drink. Maybe it was because the coffeeshops in those days didn't sell any Chinese tea.

Victor said...

Etel - Wait, you haven't learnt the rules of the game yet.

Victor said...

Siva, you always have such a refreshing and scientific explanation about the origins of everything. I guess it must be due to your work. :p

You are right about the meaning of kakitangan. But I didn't know that in Indonesian, the word means a criminal member. But then, playing mahjong for money is considered gambling, which is an offence. So in that sense, it is quite appropriate to call mahjong players kakis, right?

Victor said...

Fr - You are right about the person owning the premises collecting "taxes" as compensation in mahjong games. In my case, the place used was considered common property.

Yes, I could have made a dollar a day if the neighbour's kid did not compete with me in buying coffee. But he did. So it would be good if I could make 60 cents a day.

Lam Chun See said...

Actually the traditional mahjong is using plastic chips and the method of calculating is very interesting; ingenious even. But nowadays people are too lazy and they adopt the Hong Kong style.

peter said...

I like to propose this. Can you organize a classroom session on: "How to play mahjong"? I wont mind being your student (BTW I am not joking). I prefer "Monkey See Money Do" way of learning. How about it? maybe youe xtend this invitation to yesterday.sg folks.

Victor said...

Chun See - I know what you mean. Like in a casino, the plastic chips represent real money. At the end of the game, the players have to settle their winnings and losses with cash.

What's "interesting" is the counting of woo's which the winner had garnered in a game. Each woo is a "double". So if you have 5 woo's it's considered a "full house". Your winnings due from each of the other players are multiplied by a factor of 2 to the power of 5, i.e. 32 times!

Victor said...

Peter - I agree that the best way to learn the game is to sit down and play it. You gather two more monkeys and the lessons are on! At your place. (I am not joking either.)

etel said...

so r u gonna teach me? XD

tigerfish said...

I can never understand mahjong!

BTW, 3tbsp sugar + 10cen coffee cannot max profit lah, because with that 3tbsp of sugar, it will increase chances of diabetes and medical bills shoots up many yrs later!!!! :P

Victor said...

GNE - Alright, now we've got 3 monkeys. Ask VL to be the 4th one. :p

Victor said...

Tigerfish - You may never understand mahjong but some people can't understand why mahjong players can spend so many hours sitting at the table, losing sleep (sometimes even money) doing a seemingly meaningless activity.

Lam Chun See said...

Ah Victor. I think 'double' is farn, not woo. And judging from your response to my earlier comment about plastic chip, you obviously don't know about the original method of calculation of winnings using chips. Like that still dare be tutor ah!

Unfortunately, I also don't know becos have not played mahjong for more than 20 years. I used to play with my siblings and my mother a lot; but we too used the lazy Hong Kong mahjong method.