The history of illegal gambling and chap ji kee in Sarawak

More than a hundred years ago, chap ji kee or chap jee ki was a famous gambling game in Sarawak. Today, you can be thrown in jail for playing the illegal gambling game of chap ji kee.

What is chap ji kee

It is believed this game started in Johor in the early 1890s before spreading to Singapore, Malaya and eventually Sarawak.

Based on the 12 game pieces from Chinese chess, each piece was assigned a number.

The gamblers then lay bets on a combination of two numbers from 1 to 12. Hence, there were 144 possible combinations.

The numbers could also be replaced with other characters such as animals or Chinese characters.

There were few ways to bet; firstly one could bet on the combination of numbers in a particular order. Winners could earn winnings up to 100 times their bets.

Secondly, the gamblers could bet two numbers to appear in either order. Win this and you get paid up to 50 times the stake.

Or gamblers could bet on one single number from either draw and get paid 20 times their stakes.

Another popular form of playing chap ji kee involved gamblers placing their bets on gaming tables and using Chinese playing cards. This version was known as chap ji kee pangjang or long chap ji kee.

chinese cards 4025108 1280
The longer version of chap ji kee used Chinese playing cards in their bets. Photo by Pixabay.

At first, chap ji kee was played on a board or table with gamblers staking their bets in person.

Slowly, the game evolved into collecting bets from gamblers at their homes or on the street. This was to avoid detection of authorities who prohibited the game.

In Singapore, the game was called the “housewives’ opium”. Bored housewives turned to the game as a way of bringing more excitement into their lives and provide some distraction from their daily responsibilities.

Although the women in general did not play for high stakes, the little winnings they had was satisfactory enough to buy something nice for themselves or their children.

Chap ji kee in Sarawak

In Sarawak, gambling was legalised by the Brooke government since it provided a large revenue to the state.

Some historians believed that the Brooke government could hardly do without opium and gambling.

Apart from needing the money, it was also a way for the government to keep the activities under their radar.

Back then, the Brooke government would not have had enough resources to enforce any anti-gambling laws.

At first, these gambling dens, just like the opium farms, were run by the government.

On July 1, 1885 under the issue of the Farms Order, the government opened a tender to private contractors for periods of three years.

The first company to receive the tender was Ong Ewe Hai & Co. It had the exclusive rights to open and keep gambling houses. Furthermore, they were allowed to license the opening and keeping of gambling houses within the district from Tanjung Datu to the Sadong river.

Back then, the government even assigned two policemen to keep the peace at these gambling houses in Kuching.

At first, there was no restriction on the opening hours of these gambling houses or the age of gamblers.

So young and old were welcomed to throw in their money at any given time of the day.

Restrictions on gambling

By the late 1920s, Kuching Chinese community leaders started to petition the government to put tighter rules on gambling.

Finally, the government announced their tighter restrictions in a notice which was published in the Gazette on December 1928.

The notice stated that from 1st January, 1929, public gaming would only be permitted in the following streets in Kuching; Carpenter Street, India Street, Bishopsgate Street and China Street.

On top of that, chap ji kee and those under 16 years of age were not allowed to gamble in Kuching and throughout the first division.

1929 was also the year when public gambling in Kuching would only be allowed from 4pm to 6am.

By 1930, the prohibition of chap ji kee and of gambling by those under the age of 16 was extended to the whole of Sarawak.

If gambling was legal, why was chap ji kee illegal?

According to The Sarawak Gazette writer Loh Chee Yin, it was not surprising that chap ji kee was prohibited as it caused the greatest misery among the people.

“There is no skill in the game and the dividend is high – a $1 bet will give you a return of $10, and $10 will yield $100 and so on if you are lucky,” Loh wrote.

He continued, “I remember the scene of a Chap Jee Kee den operated at a shophouse along Wayang Street during Japanese occupation period. Twelve Chinese characters were painted on a table measuring about 5 feet by 8 feet.

“The banker sat on one side of the table with two assistants standing around. Twelve similar characters were carved on ‘chips’, which were kept in a sack made of thick cloth. The banker placed his hand inside the sack and selected the character he wanted by feeling with his finger, similar to the Braille used by the blind! The chip was then hidden inside a wooden box about the size of a match box, then placed on top of the table. Each better started to put his bet on the character that he thought was in the box. Finally the banker revealed his chips and paid accordingly. The result was written on a small blackboard hung up in front of the shop. One session took about fifteen minutes.”

Chap ji kee back then and today

Loh also shared stories of gamblers sleeping in the graves of their relatives in the hopes that the dead would reveal a favourable word or a result of a chap ji kee game.

“All dreams during the night were closely examined to see whether they had any relations to the twelve characters. The bankers in their turn, made offerings to their gods, asking for protection against the spirits which might reveal the secret of his words. In short; hell of a mess,” he shared.

While chap ji kee is still a form of illegal gambling to this day, the variation of this game might be still played in private and isolated circles today.

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

Previous Story

An Iban legend about the immortal Garai and his blowpipe

Next Story

5 things to know about Nha Trang Cathedral, Vietnam

Latest from Culture