With little else to do, gray-haired Hong Kong Chinese earn pocket money

A little gamble in the park

Posted: Tuesday, November 05, 2002

HONG KONG -- Tucking several coins beneath his crossed legs as he sat on the ground in a park, the 53-year-old former carpenter was on the lookout for the law.

''You aren't police, are you?'' Tommy Tsui shouted as a reporter walked over to watch him place another bet on his card game.

Tsui's opponent was a more relaxed 80-year-old who identified himself only by an alias, Chess King Chuen.

Chess King Chuen said nothing, keeping his focus on the game. He soon tossed out his cards, which were so thin and elongated that they could be easily concealed from passers-by.

Tsui cried out -- an instant acknowledgment of defeat -- after seeing Chess King Chuen's hand in the traditional Chinese game ''fishing,'' played with a deck of 84 cards adorned with patterns of red and black dots.

It's a scene repeated all over Hong Kong, every day.

Hordes of retired or unemployed Chinese, ranging from middle age on up, gather in the parks, playgrounds and open spaces -- such as concrete areas below highway bridges -- to kill their boredom by betting.

They play cards, chess and other local favorites such as pai gow, which uses tile dominoes.

The betting is illegal, but gambling has long been a favored pastime of Hong Kong Chinese young and old, and the authorities rarely interfere.

Some sociologists believe playing the games and tallying the bets can help elderly people keep their brains working, while cutting the odds they will develop Alzheimer's disease.

Some social welfare advocates in Hong Kong disagree, saying the betting should be stopped so the seniors would have to find other pursuits.

The director of the Society for Community Organization, Ho Hei-wah, called gambling in the park an unhealthy lifestyle and said the authorities should prosecute more cases and hand down harsher punishments.

''They sit and gamble all day, with no other activities,'' Ho said.

Although arrests are rare, the authorities occasionally prosecute the gray-haired gamblers.

One minor crackdown made headlines in September, when the police hauled a 100-year-old woman, Lee Yung-mui, and six slightly younger defendants into court, fining them $38 each for betting on a card game in a park.

It was the fourth gambling conviction for Lee, who grinned broadly as she walked out of the courthouse, presumably back to the next card game.

The maximum penalty is three months in jail and a fine of $1,282 on a first conviction. The prison time and fine can be doubled on a second offense and tripled on a third offense.

Police say they have been arresting fewer people for gambling outdoors, although they don't keep track of them by age so it's not clear how many are elderly. In 1999, there were 1,079 arrests; last year, just 605.

One recent afternoon, Tsui and Chess King Chuen played about 20 rounds of fishing, and Chess King Chuen won $10 from Tsui.

It didn't amount to much in Hong Kong, one of the world's most expensive cities, but it was enough to keep Chess King Chuen well fed for the day. He sometimes wins enough for a nice steamed fish -- one of the top Cantonese culinary treats.

''He's usually a winner -- I'm giving him free meals every day,'' Tsui said with a shrug.

Chess King Chuen just smiled, surrounded by a half dozen kibitzers, all in their 60s or 70s.

Among Hong Kong's 6.8 million people, just more than 1 million are over 60, said Timothy Ma, executive director of the Senior Citizen Home Safety Association.

About 160,000 are under the care of community centers that ban betting, but in a culture where it is common for several generations to live together, many of the rest are left at home alone during the day when their adult children go to work.

With little else to do, many of Hong Kong's elderly venture out of their cramped, often sweltering apartments to meet up with friends and neighbors, play their favorite games and try to win some pocket money.

Many are on welfare and can't afford other forms of entertainment, such as the legal betting on Hong Kong's horse races or in the territory's mahjong parlors, where players make a clattering racket -- it could almost be Hong Kong's trademark noise -- as they shuffle their tile playing pieces and slam them onto the table tops.

Others say they just can't resist the thrill of placing a wager.

''The joy and excitement of gambling outweigh the bad bets and help to kill the boredom,'' said Tsui.

Social workers and district government officials say most of the elderly gamblers limit themselves to losing just a few Hong Kong dollars (less than $1 in U.S. currency) per day -- although a few run into deep debt playing for far bigger stakes in games run by the Chinese triad gangs.

One of the spectators, 78-year-old Cheung Wing-kin, said the authorities rarely make a fuss.

''The police would only break up the bigger crowds -- they usually would turn a blind eye to small groups,'' Cheung said, grinning with just one big tooth visible in his upper jaw.

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