22 February 2010

Chap Ji Ki

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to promote gambling. Read on at your own risk. Should you become addicted to gambling and think you have crossed the line by reading this article, please consult these people.

With the opening of the Resort World Sentosa last week, the topic for this article is still about gambling.

MM Lee is right, the Chinese are congenital gamblers. I was introduced to gambling the game of chap ji ki at a very tender age by none other than my own mother. You see, she often asked me to place bets for her at the coffeeshop downstairs:

I think why she wanted me to do it for her was because our block did not have a lift and we stayed on the 4th storey. In her opinion, a young boy like me would definitely take less effort to climb up and down the stairs compared to a middle-aged woman suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Being a filial son, I always complied with her orders. Well, she might not be aware then that by doing so, she could be doing more damage to my future than she would have done to her knees.

She would pass me a betting slip that didn't resemble this at all:

Image taken from Singapore Pools website

Instead, it looked something like this:

The wager on the left is on my favorite numbers "6-9" and is called a "pai pai" (排排,Cantonese for "next to each other" or "horizontal") bet . The one on the right is a "jek lok" (直落,"straight down" or "vertical") bet on the numbers 7-10 (How the game is played and the payout system are explained in this Singapedia entry and I need not explain them here.)

My mum, like many housewives of those days, was not formally educated. So instead of indicating the amount of the bet, she would draw symbols - a circle with one slash across it meant 50 cents, a circle with an X across it meant 1 dollar and a smaller circle stood for 10 cents. Technically speaking, the smallest acceptable bet was 10 cents but I think the smallest bet my mum ever placed was 30 cents. Her highest bet on a number was no more than a few dollars so there was no need for symbols of bigger currency denominations. (For the record, the amount for the left bet is $1.80 while the right one is $2.40. Easy, isn't it?)

In return for placing the bets, the coffeeshop owner 阿东(Ah Dong) would scribble a receipt for me in a small notepad and give me a carbon copy.

My mum was meticulous in keeping track of the past winning chap ji ki numbers. She had sheets of A4 sized cards on which she recorded them. She would take them out for study before placing any bets. However, whether this method worked for her or not, I don't know. Although she did strike once in a while, I think like in all gambling, she suffered a net loss overall.

Luckily, in those days, the coffeeshop didn't bar those aged under 18 from buying chap ji ki. If it did, I certainly wouldn't have lived to tell this story. But even more fortunately in my opinion, is that I didn't grow up to be a compulsive gambler, whether through nature or nurture. And for that, I thank the God of Fortune.

16 February 2010

Changing Landscape Of Singapore (1)

I was at the River Hongbao yesterday. River Hongbao is being held at The Float@Marina Bay, previously known as Marina Bay Floating Platform. (Have you noticed that even names of places keep changing here?)

While at the event, one can't help but notice the Marina Bay Sands (MBS) standing just behind the God of Fortune. It is as if he is blessing the soon to be completed MBS with good luck in the Year of the Tiger.

Coincidentally, its counterpart Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) opened its doors at the auspicious time of 12.18 pm on 14 February 2010, the first day of the Lunar New Year.

ST Photo dated 16 February, 2010

Perhaps a not so well-known but no less important "opening" is the recent launch of the online newspapers archive called NewspaperSG. It is an initiative of the National Library Singapore that provides library patrons with access to digital copies of Singapore newspapers dating back to 1831.

Do you know whose original idea it was to build the Integrated Resorts? Certainly not this guy. Searching through NewspaperSG, I found a letter in the Straits Times Forum page of 10 June 1985 which was written by someone with the pseudonym "Go for Broke" who suggested the development of a casino as well as a night racing track in Sentosa. (Possibly since the 1990s, Straits Times had disallowed the use of pseudonyms for letters to the Forum.) The letter is reproduced here:
Sentosa casino will draw tourists

While neighbouring countries are feverishly developing new holiday resorts to promote tourism, our own efforts in this area seem perfunctory by comparison.

On our part, we should upgrade Sentosa into a holiday resort of international standard. We could, I venture to suggest, develop a hotel-cum-casino complex there and perhaps throw in a race track for night racing as a novelty.

In these difficult times for the tourism industry, bold and imaginative steps need to be taken by the authorities concerned to attract more tourists to our shores.

Singapore 2056
Guess what was the reply from Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC)? The suggestions were dismissed, of course. Here's the reply dated 15 June 1985 from Miss Cheryl Lee, Head (Public Relations) of SDC:
Casino out of the question for Sentosa

We refer to the letter "Sentosa casino will draw tourists" by "Go for Broke". (ST, June 10).

The development philosophy of the Sentosa Development Corporation is to develop Sentosa into a resort island for tourists and a holiday retreat for Singaporeans.

The many attractions cater for the varied needs of the visitors and are aimed at the family group as well as the individual. Plans are in hand to upgrade existing facilities as well as to add new attractions.

Wholesome recreational activities are also organised for a wider participation. The casino and race track idea does not form part of the aforementioned concept.

We would however wish to thank "Go for Broke" for his interesting suggestions.

Head (Public Relations)
A quarter of a century later, everyone now knows that both ideas of "Go for Broke" have been adopted by the Government, although the night racing track is not located in Sentosa. But we did even better, didn't we? We will soon have TWO casinos instead of one. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In fact, we should thank "Go for Broke" for the suggestion to develop the casino and night racing track. He/she is obviously someone with great foresight. The only problem about expressing our gratitude is that we don't even his/her real name!

13 February 2010

The Tiger Creeps Upon Us

Before you know it
The tiger has crept near
And with the festival's spirit
Heralds the end of Ox year

From Chinatown to Little India
There are sights and sounds
Of the passing of another year
As visitors make their rounds

A Wood Tiger in a Metal Year
Not a favorite time to have a baby
Don't mistake it for Tiger Woods last year
Who played many holes but paid dearly

Forget about past unhappiness
Tomorrow is a new beginning
Whether you're running a business
Or like most who're just working

May the new year be happy
Welcome the God of Fortune
Wish you health and prosperity
And all hopes be realised soon

Gong Xi Gong Xi

06 February 2010

A Little Bird Told Me

An Indian fortune teller in Bedok Central, not a pet seller. - Photo taken on 30 Mar 2008

"A little bird told me" is an idiom which refers to information which was gathered from a source not to be overtly exposed. Compare it to "I heard it through the grapevine" which refers to information which was obtained via an informal contact. Of course, my friend Andy Young will point out that it is also a title of a signature song by Marvin Gaye who released it in 1968.

Anyway, my article today is not about 1960s music. It is about a traditional occupation - a fortune teller. Mind you, not just any fortune teller. There are many kinds - some gaze into a crystal ball; some use playing cards; some look at your face or palms; some shake your fortune out from coins in tortoise shell; and so on. But there's one thing all fortune tellers share in common, and that is you don't have to spend a fortune to have your fortune told. Their prices are really quite reasonable unless they are out to fleece you. Usually, it is just a couple of dollars. However, I can't comment on how accurate their predictions are.

If their soothsaying didn't come true for you, you can always blame it on your stars their skills. For it was either their data extraction process that had gone awry or that their data interpretation skills that required polishing up. But what if a little bird told you so? Well, then you could put all your blame on the poor little bird if you want. But don't be too hard on the bird - it is only trying to make a living, just like the fortune teller.

A fortune teller could be of any race. But for some unknown reason, fortune tellers with little birds (not figuratively) in Singapore nowadays are likely to be Indians. Usually the bird is either a parrot or a canary. However, I remember that decades ago, Chinese fortune tellers also had little birds. They preferred to use Java sparrows instead.

A Java Sparrow

Another Java Sparrow. Telling its own fortune from its reflection, perhaps?

So how does a little bird tell someone's fortune? The bird has to be trained to pick out one card from a stack which is spread out on the table. So that it will not fly away, the bird probably had its wings clipped. Once it has mastered the skill of picking a card, the fortune teller can start picking a customer. When a fortune needs to be told, the bird is let out of the cage. It picks a card by pulling it out from the stack with its beak. Once it has done this seemingly simple task, it is promptly rewarded with a grain of seed or padi and its work is considered done. The bird voluntarily hops back into the cage, after which its master closes the cage gate. Now it is the fortune teller's turn to spin his tale.

Sometimes, the fortune teller may have 2 birds instead of 1. In such a case, the birds do not work so hard but then the downside is that they do not get their rewards as often.

Below is an exhibit on the Indian fortune teller which I saw at the Catholic High School on 22 Nov 2008:

An exhibit at Catholic High School - Photo taken on 22 Nov 2008

The explanatory notes at the exhibit says:
"The Indian fortune teller is now getting to be a rarity along the street in Little India. The Indian fortune teller keeps a canary or parrot in a cage as he sets up a small stall along the shophouses. When a customer pays the fortune teller to have his fortune told, the fortune teller will open up the cage and tells the canary to choose a card from a stack of cards on the table. The Indian fortune teller will then reveal the customer's upcoming misfortune or lucky streak to him."

Further Reading

Read the stories of fortune tellers here and here.