The Chinese are a nation of gamblers, and they begin the bad
habit when very young....Your boy or servant bets as to whether
you will order ham and eggs or fish for breakfast. A rickshaw
coolie lays a wager on which shaft of his vehicle a fly will
light on first, which is not more foolish than for British boys
to bet on horses which they have never seen. The fly at least
cannot be jockeyed.
--THE REV. E.J. HARDY John Chinaman at Home, 1907
At two o'clock in the morning, on day 3 of the Year of the Ox,
400 of us are sardined into a restaurant in the Toronto suburbs,
bellowing encouragement to thoroughbreds a world away.
On a giant television screen we study the post parade from a
racetrack called Sha Tin (sandy field) in the British crown
colony of Hong Kong. On July 1 that tiny territory and its
economic free-for-all will revert to Chinese sovereignty and
whatever fate the Communist government in Beijing has in store.
Pragmatists call this transfer "the handover." Opponents label
it "the surrender." But now, as the waitress at the Century
Palace Restaurant and Teletheatre in Markham, Ont., brings
another order of deep-fried fish balls with curry sauce, we are
transfixed by ponies, not politics.
Our rendezvous smacks of illicit midnights in the back alleys of
some Chinatown. But at bars and restaurants in Toronto and
Vancouver, and at racetracks from Arcadia, Calif., to East
Rutherford, N.J., to Regina, Saskatchewan, thousands of others
are legally sharing this passion. Almost all of the punters at
these sites are Hong Kong Chinese. Most have fled the colony in
the uncertain months before the sun sets on the last Asian
outpost of the British Empire. With them are a few insomniac
gweilos (foreign ghosts) like me.
"There's a Chinese proverb--'A little knife can cut a big
tree,'" says Jeffery Fong, a manager in the teletheater
department of the Ontario Jockey Club. He manages the overnight
wagering operations at the Century Palace and eight other
locations that serve greater Toronto's 300,000 Chinese
residents. "Chinese people don't want to bet one thousand
dollars to make one thousand dollars. They want to bet one
dollar to make one thousand dollars."
In hopes of attaining that unlikely goal, the horse players are
hunched over Chinese-language newspapers or snaking impatiently
toward live and automated tote operators. The exotic combination
bets especially entrance them, although the Canadian
teletheaters, which establish their own mutuel pool, separate
from the Hong Kong odds, don't offer the extravagant array of
quinellas, tierces and rolling daily doubles that the 70,000
people in the grandstand at Sha Tin are playing as we watch.
The din at the Century Palace is deafening. Nobody except me
looks the least bit sleepy. Dozens of men bark into cellular
phones, comparing odds and deciding where and how much to
plunge. There's no air of formality. To a Hong Konger, pleasure
is a business, and the expatriate bettors here are stripped down
to the essentials--blue jeans, leather jackets, Mild Seven
cigarettes, Cantonese tip sheets and chocolate-brown Canadian
"They all dress the same," says Tak Chen, a part owner of this
teletheater. "Bums or billionaires--you can't tell."
"Why do the Chinese love to gamble?" I ask Chen. (The name Chen
means virtue or morality.)
"Over the past 4,000 years," he replies, "China has been
dominated by poor people. Eighty percent of the Chinese people
live in poverty. So you go for hope."
We study the Sha Tin tote board, 13 time zones away, and notice
a banner beneath it that reads GONG HEI FAT CHOY (literally,
wishing you good fortunes and wealth), the traditional New
Year's blessing of the Cantonese. It appears to be a mild,
overcast afternoon in Hong Kong. The trainers, as we see them
instructing their jockeys in the moments before the race, are in
suit jackets or Burberry raincoats.
The restaurant, where diners can also wager on North American
flat and harness races while enjoying their dim sum during the
hours when normal humans are awake, is a series of large and
small banquet rooms that are given over entirely from midnight
to 5 a.m. to punters playing the Hong Kong races. The kitchen
pumps out steaming bowls of noodles, but the alcohol supply is
cut off at one, by Ontario law.
"Many of the Hong Kong players do not consider the race from the
horse's point of view," a patron named Arthur Chau tells me. "We
worry about trainer's tricks. We say, 'Don't bet on this
guy--the others are ganging up on him.' But it doesn't really
matter. We bet on anything. We're almost as bad as the
Chau says he has been playing the ponies for more than 30 years,
the past five in Canada. The hobby, he admits, has not enriched
him. I quote Mickey Rooney--"I lost two dollars on a horse 40
years ago and have spent millions since trying to win it
back"--but this cheers him only momentarily.
Racing in Hong Kong--clockwise, on grass, with about a dozen
horses in every race--is as old as the colony itself. Almost
everywhere Victorian imperialists settled, they brought the
sport of queens, even to a tiny, isolated opium trading post at
the mouth of the Pearl River. The venerable course at Happy
Valley on Hong Kong Island, founded in the 1840s, now splits
race dates with the newer facility at Sha Tin Bay. Together they
bring in an average betting handle, on-track and off, of $1.3
billion Hong Kong dollars (U.S. $168 million) every racing day.
Most of the horses are imported from Australia; the trainers and
jockeys come from Britain, Canada, China and the U.S.
In the early 1980s, when it first became clear that Her
Britannic Majesty would not hold on to Hong Kong after the
99-year lease on the New Territories expired on June 30, 1997,
there was apprehension in some quarters that the Communists
might shut down the horse races as a symbol of what was looked
upon as the West's "spiritual pollution." When the British prime
minister went to Beijing to negotiate the handover and promptly
fell down a flight of stairs, the omens seemed especially ominous.
"I was in London at the time," recalls T.C. Lai, who worked for
the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club for more than 30 years before
coming to Canada to help inaugurate Hong Kong telewagering in
1994. "I was watching TV, and I saw Margaret Thatcher stumble on
the steps of the Great Hall of the People. Some people were very
nervous. But we remembered that Deng Xiaoping had already
promised, 'When Hong Kong comes back to China, you will dance
the same dance, and the races will go on.' And of course they
(Two weeks into the Year of the Ox, "paramount leader" Deng
Xiaoping "went to see Marx," as Chinese Communists like to say,
dying at the age of 92. But no one expects that even the most
Red-blooded of Deng's successors will choose to darken Sha Tin
or Happy Valley in the name of revolutionary rectitude. In the
New China money, not Mao, is king.)
The Ontario Jockey Club estimates that the average player at the
Century Palace will bet $500 Canadian (U.S. $364) before dawn.
In the VIP room the average might be $5,000. But the biggest
gamblers, Chen says, don't come to the teletheaters. They
maintain their betting accounts in Hong Kong and continue to
wager by long-distance telephone.
The punters, as they like to call themselves, are part of the
wealthiest and best-educated wave of immigrants the world has
ever seen. Beginning with Thatcher's stumble and cresting in the
years after the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, Hong Kong
Chinese in the hundreds of thousands have chosen refuge in
Canada--a sanctuary that many acquire, then immediately abandon,
returning home with the security of a free-world passport in
"This is part of our life," Chen says, looking around the hall.
"We love the kind of excitement provided by any game."
"Chinese people are very superstitious," Jeff Fong adds, "but
this overcomes it. If we like the horses and the odds, we'll
even bet on a combination of seven and four, which rhymes in
Chinese with certain death.
"It's like when we want to buy a new house, we call in the feng
shui master to check if there are any evil spirits, and he says,
'You can't live there--it's unlucky.' Some people say, 'I will
live there.' If you survive, you're the most powerful person on
earth. That's how we feel when our horse wins."
Allen Abel was Beijing bureau chief for the Toronto Globe and
Mail from 1983 to 1985.