Chap ji kee

Singapore Infopedia


Chap ji kee (which means “12 cards” in Hokkien) is an illegal lottery that was widespread in Singapore until the late 1960s.During chap ji kee’s heyday, the lottery’s popularity spawned a system of promoters and their agents, bet collectors, accountants, cashiers and couriers.2 Major chap ji kee syndicates were estimated to turn over $300,000 daily in the 1960s.3 By the 1970s, chap ji ki has been operating on a less prominent scale due to police action against organised crime.4


Based on an old Chinese game, chap ji kee is said to have started in Johor in the early 1890s before spreading to Singapore.5 Throughout Malaya, the game flourished in areas with significant Chinese populations, although it also attracted gamblers of other races.6

Chap ji kee was first played on a board or table, with gamblers staking their bets in person. At that time, it involved guessing one number from a set of 12.7 Then from 1894, an elaborate system emerged to minimise the risk of detection by authorities, and the game evolved into a lottery where bets were taken by collectors who visited gamblers or on the street.8

In its early years, chap ji kee was played mainly by Chinese women from middle-class and wealthy families.9 The lottery soon became prevalent among the wider population, and the most well-known form of playing involved gamblers picking a combination of two numbers. This method of playing was said to have been introduced by a bean cake seller in the early 1900s.10 The chap ji kee‘s popularity among Chinese women was said to have led to many family conflicts, and it was community leaders such as Lim Boon Keng who had drawn the colonial government’s attention to the lottery’s ill effects.11 Subsequently, gamblers and operators were prosecuted by the government under the Common Gaming Houses Ordinance.12

With a large network under its control, the Lau Tiun syndicate was the dominant chap ji kee operator in the 1920s. During the Japanese Occupation, the Tai Tong Ah Eng Quan syndicate – under a man known as Shanghai Chua – became the main operator. After the Occupation, Chua split up with the syndicate and established the group Shanghai Tai Tong.13

Shanghai Tai Tong quickly became the leading chap ji kee syndicate, but suffered internal discords as key members fought 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 loh secret society, which gained a foothold in the chap ji kee scene after police raids eliminated much of Shanghai Tai Tong’s management.14

The entry of the predominantly Hock chia Chap Sar loh saw the 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 on joint management of the result process, but eventually split into independent organisations.15

The Sio Poh syndicate grew its well-organised network, and had a daily turnover of over $300,000 by 1968. Most of the syndicate’s promoters were headmen in Chap Sar Ioh. The promoters also expanded into other businesses such as the commodities trade, finance companies and night clubs. At its height, Sio Poh employed 43 sub-promoters who were deployed all over Singapore but had their operations based in Jalan Besar and Geylang.16

For years, the CID made little headway with curbing the chap ji kee syndicates’ operations. Those arrested and prosecuted were usually collectors and couriers rather than the key promoters.17 In 1955, the value of chap ji kee bets seized by the police was $241,000, which was less than the syndicates’ daily turnover.18 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 to their representatives and minimising the use of written records for their transactions.19

In 1968, a joint operation by the CID and the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau lasting six months crippled the chap ji kee scene with the arrest of about 100 people from three syndicates, including the leadership of Sio Poh. Smaller operations later emerged, but chap ji kee was not operated on the same scale again as a result of police action against organised crime.20

In 2004, police broke up a chap ji kee syndicate and investigations showed that it had a betting turnover of as high as S$400,000 per day. Syndicate members were said to be primarily unemployed people who operated at markets, and gamblers were mostly between the ages of 45 and 75.21

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 a combination of two numbers from 1 to 12.22 There are 144 possible combinations and a number of ways to win.23 A one-way bet, written in vertical fashion, is for the combination of numbers in a particular order, and winners are paid 100 times the stake. 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. Betting on single numbers, however, was not popular.24

The daily lottery was operated by a number of syndicates organised around promoters, sub-promoters and collectors.25 Collectors took bets at the 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.26 A sub-promoter earned a commission from the total bets taken by their collectors – typically around two percent – and also had a share of the profits.27 At the top of the syndicate were the promoters.28 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.29

Gamblers knew that the promoter would select the least-backed combination, but considered that the system was based on chance as much as an actual draw would be.30 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. The more superstitious gamblers took these riddles seriously, and scrutinised them for an advantage.31

This popular form of chap ji kee had 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 known as chap ji kee panjang (long chap ji kee).32

Alvin Chua

1. Choor Singh, Gaming in Malaya (Singapore: Malayan Law Journal, 1960), 42 (Call no. RCLOS 795.026 CHO); G. T. Hare, “The Game of Chap Ji Ki,” Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, no. 31, (July 1898): 65 (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website); Y. C. Ying, “Chap Ji Kee,” in Police Life Annual 86 (Singapore: Singapore Police Force, 1986), 142 (Call no. RCLOS 363.2095957 PLA); Peter Lim, “The ABC of Gambling for Adults Only,” Straits Times, 26 July 1964, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Singh, Gaming in Malaya, 43; C. T. Dobree, Gambling Games of Malaya (Kuala Lumpur: Caxton Press, 1955), 42 (Call no. RCLOS 795 DOB-[SEA]); Ying, “Chap Ji Kee,” 146.
3. Stella Danker, “The Town’s Biggest Cheap Thrill Is All But Buried,” Straits Times, 27 July 1986, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Brian Miller, “‘Just Give Me Two Numbers’,” New Paper, 17 May 2005, 51. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Dobree, Gambling Games of Malaya, 11, 42; Hare, “Game of Chap Ji Ki,” 70; Lim, “ABC of Gambling for Adults Only.” 
6. Dobree, Gambling Games of Malaya, 42; Lim, “ABC of Gambling for Adults Only”; The Ghost of a Chance,” Straits Times, 3 December 1955, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Ying, “Chap Ji Kee,” 144.
8. Hare, “Game of Chap Ji Ki,” 66–67.
9. Hare, “Game of Chap Ji Ki,” 63, 64, 66.
10. Hare, “Game of Chap Ji Ki,” 71; Singh, Gaming in Malaya, 43; Ying, “Chap Ji Kee,” 144–45; Danker, “Town’s Biggest Cheap Thrill.” 
11. Wilfred Blythe, The Impact of Chinese Secret societies in Malaya: A Historical Study (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1969), 245 (Call no. RSEA 366.09595 BLY); Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 314, 440 (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS]); “Chap Ji Kee,” Straits Times, 7 May 1909, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Singh, Gaming in Malaya, 42; “Chap Ji Kee,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 4 February 1926, 16; “Chap Ji Kee Lotteries,” Straits Times, 27 March 1911, 7; “Chap Ji Kee Sensation,” Singapore Free Press, 27 April 1926, 7; “Rampant Chap Ji Kee,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 20 December 1907, 8; “Stricter Law to Suppress Gaming,” Straits Times, 27 May 1939, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Ying, “Chap Ji Kee,” 148.
14. Ying, “Chap Ji Kee,” 148–49; Danker, “Town’s Biggest Cheap Thrill.” 
15. Ying, “Chap Ji Kee,” 149; Danker, “Town’s Biggest Cheap Thrill.”
16. Ying, “Chap Ji Kee,” 149–50.
17. Ying, “Chap Ji Kee,” 151.
18. Blythe, Impact of Chinese Secret societies in Malaya, 476.
19. Ying, “Chap Ji Kee,” 151; “Police Fight Lotteries Rackets,” Straits Times, 18 May 1947, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Ying, “Chap Ji Kee,” 151; Danker, “Town’s Biggest Cheap Thrill.”
21. “Suspects Arrested in Raids on Illegal Lottery,” Straits Times, 3 September 2004, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Dobree, Gambling Games of Malaya, 42; Ying, “Chap Ji Kee,” 144–45; Lim, “ABC of Gambling for Adults Only.” 
23. Singh, Gaming in Malaya, 43; Dobree, Gambling Games of Malaya, 42; Ying, “Chap Ji Kee,” 145.
24. Dobree, Gambling Games of Malaya, 43; Danker, “Town’s Biggest Cheap Thrill”; Lim, “ABC of Gambling for Adults Only.” 
25. Singh, Gaming in Malaya, 43; Hare, “Game of Chap Ji Ki,” 66; Ying, “Chap Ji Kee,” 146.
26. Hare, “Game of Chap Ji Ki,” 61–70; Ying, “Chap Ji Kee,” 146; Danker, “Town’s Biggest Cheap Thrill.”
27. Ying, “Chap Ji Kee,” 147; Danker, “Town’s Biggest Cheap Thrill.”
28. Ying, “Chap Ji Kee,” 146.
29. Singh, Gaming in Malaya, 43–44; Danker, “Town’s Biggest Cheap Thrill.”
30. Singh, Gaming in Malaya, 43; Ying, “Chap Ji Kee,” 147; Lim, “ABC of Gambling for Adults Only”; “Police Fight Lotteries Rackets.
31. Danker, “Town’s Biggest Cheap Thrill”; Ying, “Chap Ji Kee,” 146–47.
32. Dobree, Gambling Games of Malaya, 11, 113–15.

Further resource
Janice Loo, “Desperate Housewives: The Lure of Chap Ji kee,” BiblioAsia (Oct–Dec 2015)

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.


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