There are no traditions concerning, the origin of the game of fán t’án current among the Chinese in America.11 Similar games are found among many primitive peoples, and it may have been handed down among the Chinese from an early time. Pák kòp piú is said by the Chinese here to have been invented by a governor who had used money belonging to the State for his private purposes, and who succeeded, by means of the lottery, which he established, in not only restoring the money he had embezzled, but in acquiring great riches.
The following story, translated from the Chinese by the Rev. Mr. Lobscheid, of Hong Kong, purports to be an historical account of the origin of this game, the name which he renders as “The Game of the White Dove:”
This Ingatbola88 game is an old establishment, and was first introduced by Chéung léung of the great Han Dynasty. When the city was hard pressed, and provisions were beginning to fail, they (the besieged) were anxious to increase the contributions, and to exhort the people to subscribe more for the army, but were unable to do so. Hence they established a game of chance (to guess characters), by which they hoped to tempt the people to hazard their property. In order to fix a method of losing or gaining at hazard, they chose 120 characters for the whole game and eight characters for one subdivision. If the people lost one (whole) subdivision they lost three lí of property; if they gained one division they were rewarded with ten taels. These regulations being once established, who would not sacrifice a little in order to gain much? The two games in the morning and evening were attended by men and women who tried their luck by guessing. They had only opened the game (Page 13) for about ten days, when they had accumulated more than 1000 pieces of silver; and after a few more decades their wealth was boundless. The money thus gained was considered a contribution to the army for the reduction of the empire….
At present the people practice the game as a profession. They borrow the characters from the Thousand Character Classic, of which eighty are chosen and arranged after a new plan, ten characters forming one division, which the people are permitted to purchase for more or less (for whatever they please.)
Three cash gaining ten taels makes the people covet the game without loathing. When they guess five characters they gain five lí; when six characters they gain five candareens; when seven characters they gain five mace; when eight characters they gain two taels and five mace; when nine characters they gain five taels; when ten characters they gain ten taels.
When this game was first established, the houses were often at a great distance, and communication being difficult and the people anxious soon to know the result respecting their gaining or losing, they employed letter doves to carry the news to the parties, whence the present designation: ‘The Game of the White Dove.’
The Chinese gambling-house keepers in New York City have at present (in 1891) a regularly-organized guild, for the purpose of mutual protection. This is found necessary, as they are constantly the objects of attempts at blackmail on the part of certain of their countrymen. A society for this express purpose, called the Hip Shin T’ong, or “Hall of United Virtues,” existed in Philadelphia in 1888, when its inner workings were disclosed in the course of the trial of some alleged Chinese gamblers in a local court. Its members each contributed five dollars for “expenses,” and were sworn to secrecy. After two Chinese had been convicted of gambling under a charge brought by officers of this society, the sum of $1400 was extorted from others under arrest as a price for the withdrawal of proceedings. The disclosure of this fact in the newspapers, brought about through a quarrel over the spoils, led to the immediate dissolution of the society, and it has not been heard from since. Its membership was entirely recruited from the ranks of the secret society popularly known as the Í hing and the plan of its organization appears to have been drawn from that of the same order. It is not altogether sure that the Í hing itself has not degenerated into a mere blackmailing organization, as its lodge in New York City, the Lün Í T’ong, is known to levy a monthly assessment of seventy-five cents on each lottery, and fán t’án table. The Kung sho, or “Public Hall,” in New York City, however, which was founded by Chinese merchants, and furnished at their expense, is supported by a similar contribution of fifty cents per month, so that the amount paid to the Lün Í T’ong may be regarded by the gamblers as a reasonable compensation for friendly offices.
A more or less formal organization exists among the Chinese gambling-house keepers in Philadelphia, and meetings of those interested are assembled in the usual manner, by sending to each gambling company a slip of bamboo tipped with red and inscribed with the time and place of the meeting where this object serves as the credential of the house’s representative. EFFECT AND SIGNIFICANCE
The habit of gambling among the Chinese laborers in the United States is often reinforced; if not actually acquired, during their residence here. The emigrants are principally poor country people, and, although there are a few professional gamblers among them, the majority, from their youth and lack of money, if for no other reason, were quite unaccustomed to hazard their earnings in the manner that is almost universal among the Chinese in the United States. A few, the keepers of gambling houses, reap the benefit, and return with competencies to China, to be succeeded by others, who are in turn enriched; but the mass of the people, who contribute to this result, are often compelled to stay on far beyond (Page 15) the time they would otherwise remain in this country. The effect in general is to increase the tendency on the part of the Chinese to cluster in cities near their gambling houses, and to give permanency to their settlements.
The custom of gambling is often looked upon as one of the distinctive traits of the Chinese, and as such is almost invariably commented upon when any reference is made to them in casual speech. In the opinion of the writer, it may be regarded as a concomitant of their present state of culture, rather than as having any special ethnic significance. The gambling instinct is one that exists in a strong degree among many peoples, and even with us, although somewhat repressed in its grosser forms by legislation, constantly exhibits itself as one of the moving passions of our race and times. No doubt the games described in the foregoing account as current among the Chinese laborers in the United States will be displaced in time by speculations and amusements more in conformity to the laws and customs of their adopted country, with the result, it might be supposed, of somewhat abating vulgar prejudice against interesting people, and establishing their claims to fairer treatment at the hands of their fellow mortals.