Chinese Whispers: The Lawrence Chinese camp’s nightlife

Visiting a Chinese Camp Part 4

Today we rejoin Les and Maisie Wong’s visitors to the Lawrence Chinese camp, as they enjoy a meal with their hosts and are introduced to the camp’s nightlife…

Heading towards Ah Bok’s, we noticed Missy struggling with a pail of water. She said she was getting water from the well as it is vital to the health of the camp. Any other water could cause sickness due to the dead rotting animals around the camp. She has to get water regularly. We carried it for her and emptied it into a large glazed urn.

Collecting water at a traditional Chinese well. Photo Les Wong (taken in China).

Ah Bok said, “Always cook with this water and give it away to Chinese and Europeans, especially mothers with young children when [they] come to Yon’s store.” Very sad to see sick children, some die before age five.”

Ah Bok spoke proudly, “Our water always tastes pure. I send Missy to get water when I see men outside. Men see her carry water, they carry for her.” He added, “Tonight I cook abalone soup with fish maw and watercress for you. Abalone very expensive but fresh, prepared in China just six months ago.”

Missy was sent to invite Yon to join us for the evening delicacy. We thought it strange that Ah Bok would invite Yon when they had been haggling, so we asked him why. He replied, “I pay good money today and if soup not taste fresh, Yon will owe me discount next time!” We complemented Ah Bok for being so clever. He said, “Yon clever with money, he hires Mrs. Chee to collect bad debts. Miners not understand her angry Scottish talking [accent]. She ask, they pay.”

Yon arrives with fresh damper bread. We sat and joined hands to pay a silent respect to the ancestors. Missy served the soup and Yon shared the bread. We heard slurping, “Mmm!” – it was Ah Bok enjoying the fresh taste. To us, it was indeed delicious; particularly accompanied with damper bread. “This is a delicious blend of two cultures,” we remarked. Nobody understood except Missy.. but of course, we also have a lot to understand.

Abalone and fish maw soup – made and photographed by Les and Maisie Wong (people of many talents!)

Outside, it was dark. Yon thanked Ah Bok and told him that we are visiting the gambling and opium den. Ah Bok gave us twenty coins that had a square hole in the middle. He told us to listen to Yon. Yon said, “Nightlife keeps the camp alive, you’ll even see European men and women frequenting these places.”

Newspaper cuttings like these show us how regularly the Chinese gambling dens were raided by the goldfields police. Left: Account of a raid on the Lawrence Chinese Camp (Tuapeka Times, 1890; from PapersPast), showing us how the Chinese gambling dens were used to stoke anti-Chinese sentiment among the Europeans. Right: A raid on a gambling den in Clyde (Otago Witness, 1898; from PapersPast), showing that Europeans were just as likely to be found in the gambling dens!

In the dim flickering light of the oil lamp we saw two excited men throwing fists at each other. We said to Yon, “Maybe we should go away.” Yon says, “No, you have just seen a Chinese challenge between door-keeper and customer.” If the customer wins, he enters free, otherwise entry is two coins. Only ladies enter free!

He told us the rules – a rock is shown by a fist, two fingers – scissors, open hand – paper. Each has power over the other. You both shake your fist twice and on the third shake show your hand. If the door-keeper shows a fist and you show an open hand, you win because the paper would cover the rock and rob its power. If the door-keeper shows two fingers, he can cut your paper and wins. Likewise, a rock will blunt the scissors and the rock wins.

Yon won the challenge, we entered as visitors conditional on making a bet. In that foul gloomy room gamblers were sitting around a table playing Fan Tan. On the table is a frame with four sides 1,2,3,4. The gamekeeper has a pile of white beads. He puts a handful of beads on the table and inverts the brass cup over them. Any beads not under the cup are flicked away with the bamboo stick. Bets are taken and the gamblers must guess how many of the beads remain from four to one at the end of the round and puts his bets on any of the four numbered sides.

The cup is lifted and the gamekeeper repeatedly flicks away four beads until there are four or less remaining. If only three beads remain, side three wins. A commission is taken and side three gets the payout. The minimum value of each bet is set by the gamekeeper. He can say “two coins or ten ounces [of gold]” or any value between. You play the round you can afford. You are allowed to pawn everything except your suit or watch. As a temptation the gamekeeper could say “six” meaning your winnings will increase six fold.

A game of Fan Tan in progress in a Chinese gambling house in the USA (1887). Image from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Yon said, “He has just announced twenty – six.” “You should put all twenty coins on side 2.” We did and other gamblers placed their bets. We watched and near the end there were six beads and when four were removed there remained two. All the coins were swept away and after the abacus stopped clicking the gamekeeper pushes over a hundred coins to us.

We asked Yon, “Do we play again?” Yon said, “No! First time lucky; no second time luck. Gamblers unhappy with you winning.”

“Buy everyone a drink including the ones behind that door, drink brings happiness and friendship.”

Join us for part 5, where our visitors will be taken to the camp’s opium den….

Les and Maisie Wong, 7th Feb 2020

Authors’ note: The simple description and rules for playing Fan Tan in this blog may differ in a different den. In some parts of the world the rules and the winning odds can get very complicated. It all boils down to interpretation.

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