Chap ji kee
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Chap ji kee (12 units in Hokkien) is an illegal lottery that was widespread in Singapore until the 1970s. The popularity of the lottery spawned a system of promoters and their agents, bet collectors, accountants, cashiers and couriers that numbered in the thousands during chap ji kee’s heyday. Major chap ji kee syndicates were estimated to turn over $300,000 daily in the 1950s. The lottery remains existent in Singapore on a less prominent scale.
Based on an ancient Chinese game, chap ji kee is said to have been started in Johor in the early 1890s before spreading to Singapore. Throughout Malaya, the game flourished in areas with significant Chinese populations, although it also attracted gamblers of other races. Chap ji kee was first played on a board or a table with gamblers staking their bets in person, and involved guessing one number from a set of 12. From 1894, an elaborate system emerged to minimise the risk of detection by the authorities, and the game evolved into a lottery where bets were taken by collectors who visited gamblers or on the street.
In its early years, chap ji kee was played mainly by Chinese women from middle-class and wealthy families. The lottery soon became prevalent among the wider public, and the most well-known form in which gamblers picked a combination of two numbers was said to have been introduced by a bean-cake seller in the early 1900s. Its popularity among Chinese women was said to have led to many familial conflicts and community leaders such as Lim Boon Keng drew the attention of the colonial government to its effects. The government prosecuted gamblers and operators under the Common Gaming Houses Ordinance.
In the 1920s, the Lau Tiun syndicate was the dominant operator of chap ji kee with a large network under its control. During the Japanese Occupation, the Tai Tong Ah Eng Quan syndicate under a man known as Shanghai Chua became the main operator, and chap ji kee also featured at gambling farms licensed by the Japanese. After the Occupation, Chua split with the syndicate and set up his own group known as Shanghai Tai Tong.
Shanghai Tai Tong quickly became foremost among the chap ji kee syndicates, but suffered internal dissension with key members struggling for control. Coups were undertaken with the backing of secret societies or through the assistance of corrupt police officers, who helped arrest and banish their benefactors’ rivals. One such coup was engineered by the Chap Sar Ioh secret society, which gained a foothold in the chap ji kee scene after police raids eliminated much of Shanghai Tai Tong’s management.
The entry of the predominantly Hockchia Chap Sar Ioh saw the field of chap ji kee operations in Singapore divided into two areas. The area north of the Singapore river was given to the Hockchias and their Sio Poh Tai Tong syndicate, while south of the river was administered by the Hokkiens and their Tua Poh Tai Tong group. The two groups initially collaborated with common results and joint management of the result process, but eventually split into independent organisations.
The Sio Poh syndicate grew its well-organised network, and by 1968 had a daily turnover of over $300,000. Most of the syndicate’s promoters were headmen in Chap Sar Ioh, and two were detectives working in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). The promoters also branched out into businesses such as the commodities trade, became directors of finance companies and opened night clubs. At its height, Sio Poh employed 43 sub-promoters, who had their base of operations in Jalan Besar and Geylang but were deployed all over Singapore.
The CID made little headway into curbing the operations of the syndicates, and those arrested and prosecuted were usually collectors and couriers rather than the key promoters. In 1955, the value of chap ji kee bets seized by the police was $241,000, less than a single day’s turnover for the syndicates. That year, over 400 syndicate men were prosecuted, but not a single promoter was among them. The promoters evaded arrest by farming out street-level operations, bribing policemen and minimising the use of written records for their transactions.
In the mid-1960s, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) worked with the CID to gather information on the syndicate’s top management. In 1968, a joint CID-CPIB operation lasting six months crippled the chap ji kee scene with the arrest of around 100 people from three syndicates, including the leadership of Sio Poh. Smaller operations later sprang up, but chap ji kee was not operated on the same scale again as police action against organised crime denied the lottery the level of organisational support it required to thrive.
In 2004, police broke up a chap ji kee syndicate and investigations showed it had a betting turnover of as high as S$400,000 per day. Syndicate members were said to be mostly unemployed people who operated at markets, and gamblers were mostly between the ages of 45 and 75.
System and operations
Chap ji kee is based on the 12 game pieces from Chinese chess. Each piece is assigned a number, and gamblers lay bets on the combination of two numbers from one to 12. There are 144 possible combinations, and a number of ways to win. A one-way bet written in vertical fashion is for the combination of numbers in a particular order, and pays out 100 times the stake for a win. A two-way bet, written horizontally, is for the two numbers to appear in either order, and pays 50 times the stake. Gamblers may also bet on single numbers from either set, which pays 10 times the stake, although betting on single numbers was not popular.
The daily lottery was operated by a number of syndicates organised around promoters, sub-promoters and collectors. Collectors took bets at street level based on a system of trust, and passed the wagers on to the sub-promoters who in turn consolidated the bets with the promoter. A sub-promoter took a commission from the total of the bets taken by their collectors, typically around 2%, and also had a share of the profits. At the top of the syndicate were the promoters, who employed couriers, accountants and cashiers. They declared the winning numbers each morning, based on charts prepared to show the combination of numbers that would result in the smallest overall payout.
Gamblers knew that the promoter would select the least-backed combination, but considered that the system was predicated on chance as much as an actual draw would have been. The winning numbers would be written on walls or pillars, relayed verbally or printed on slips of paper which also featured riddles that purported to be clues to the next day’s numbers. More superstitious gamblers took these riddles seriously and scrutinised them for an advantage.
The popular form of the lottery originated from a version played in gambling dens and clubs, where punters placed their bets on gaming tables and involved the use of Chinese playing cards. This version was named chap ji kee panjang (long chap ji kee).
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The information in this article is valid as at 2012 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.