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Chinese gambling

Gambling by Chinese immigrants was usually described in negative terms by the press of the goldrush era. Terminology included phrases such as “gambling dens”, “unlawful games” and “gang of Chinese gamblers”. The reality was that people of virtually all ethnic backgrounds engaged in gambling on the goldfields, of one form or another.

China had a long history of gambling. Chinese immigrants (before and during the goldrush) brought their own games with them, but also tried other games that were new to them. It is likely that some European miners reciprocated by trying games that the Chinese had introduced to them.

Victorian attitudes

Although gambling on horse-racing had been common in Victoria since European settlers arrived in numbers from the 1830s, and other forms of gambling (cards, dice etc) were tolerated, there was a lot of anti-gambling sentiment. Much of it came from Protestant clergy and moralists who thought that gambling constituted anti-social behaviour, was likely to water down the work ethic and would inevitably lead to a degradation of moral values.

Government felt under pressure to regulate gambling, in part to try and ensure that any gambling that did occur was carried out in a fair and equitable way. In 1852, the infant Victorian Government introduced the wonderfully named Act to Restrain the Practice of Gambling and the Use of Obscene Language. At the same time, The Vagrant Act prohibited gambling on “unlawful games” and in public places. Anyone arrested for doing so could come under what was then a broad definition of a vagrant and be fined or gaoled.

In part, this legislation was used to vilify and harass the Chinese. Some of the so-called “unlawful games” were those that had a long history of being played by Chinese people. Newspapers from the last half of the 19th century contain a litany of stories about raids on Chinese gambling “dens”. In the 1860s, police were sometimes paid bonuses for arresting Chinese gamblers and those running such institutions. No such problems for horse- racing, which was controlled by the ruling classes of the day.

Types of gambling

One of the oldest card games much enjoyed by the Chinese diggers was Fan Tan, also known as “Sevens”. In the game, the object is to get rid of all your cards first. The player who does so wins the pot. Players place a chip in the pot at the start of the game and each round where they cannot make a move (i.e. place a card).

Faro was another old card game that was once played regularly, but these days in casinos it has been replaced by poker. In 1865, a raid in the Little Bourke Street Chinatown precinct led to 25 men being charged with playing a version of Faro, which was illegal at the time. They were each fined 10/-, with the alleged organisers copping £5 fines.

There were also variations of lotto games, such a Pah-ah-pu. In this game, the player buys a ticket with 85 printed Chinese characters, on which they mark ten. Pre-determined prizes are given to anyone who selects at least five correct characters, with prizes rising progressively for those with six to ten correct characters. Other Chinese games such as Mahjong and Pai Gow (the latter using 32 dominoes as part of the game) could also be used as a basis for betting.

These days, apart from some gaming that occurs in casinos in Macau and Hong Kong, gambling is largely banned in China. No doubt it still occurs at the local level as a form of entertainment. Waranga goldfields

Although there is little newspaper coverage of Chinese gambling in the local area during the goldrush, it is likely that it would have been a common occurrence. Whether this amounted to addiction, which was a generalised claim made in some newspapers, is debatable. In any case, it did not seem to affect the work ethic of most Chinese diggers, who were generally considered to be most hard-working ethnic group in their pursuit of gold.

Similarly, in a male-dominated society with few other sources of entertainment, the European diggers were drawn to different forms of gambling. More often than with the Chinese, this gambling would be accompanied by alcohol consumption, with its potential to fuel arguments and possible violence.

Sources: 1 Argus 25.10.1865