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.