The Chinese are a nation of gamblers, and they begin the bad habit when very young.... Your boy or servant bets as to whether you will order ham and eggs or fish for breakfast. A rickshaw coolie lays a wager on which shaft of his vehicle a fly will light on first, which is not more foolish than for British boys to bet on horses which they have never seen. The fly at least cannot be jockeyed.
—THE REV. E.J. HARDY
John Chinaman at Home, 1907
At two o'clock in the morning, on day 3 of the Year of the Ox, 400 of us are sardined into a restaurant in the Toronto suburbs, bellowing encouragement to thoroughbreds a world away.
On a giant television screen we study the post parade from a racetrack called Sha Tin (sandy field) in the British crown colony of Hong Kong. On July 1 that tiny territory and its economic free-for-all will revert to Chinese sovereignty and whatever fate the Communist government in Beijing has in store. Pragmatists call this transfer "the handover." Opponents label it "the surrender." But now, as the waitress at the Century Palace Restaurant and Teletheatre in Markham, Ont., brings another order of deep-fried fish balls with curry sauce, we are transfixed by ponies, not politics.
Our rendezvous smacks of illicit midnights in the back alleys of some Chinatown. But at bars and restaurants in Toronto and Vancouver, and at racetracks from Arcadia, Calif., to East Rutherford, N.J., to Regina, Saskatchewan, thousands of others are legally sharing this passion. Almost all of the punters at these sites are Hong Kong Chinese. Most have fled the colony in the uncertain months before the sun sets on the last Asian outpost of the British Empire. With them are a few insomniac gweilos (foreign ghosts) like me.
"There's a Chinese proverb—A little knife can cut a big tree,' " says Jeffery Fong, a manager in the teletheater department of the Ontario Jockey Club. He manages the overnight wagering operations at the Century Palace and eight other locations that serve greater Toronto's 300,000 Chinese residents. "Chinese people don't want to bet one thousand dollars to make one thousand dollars. They want to bet one dollar to make one thousand dollars."
In hopes of attaining that unlikely goal, the horse players are hunched over Chinese-language newspapers or snaking impatiently toward live and automated tote operators. The exotic combination bets especially entrance them, although the Canadian teletheaters, which establish their own mutuel pool, separate from the Hong Kong odds, don't offer the extravagant array of quinellas, tierces and rolling daily doubles that the 70,000 people in the grandstand at Sha Tin are playing as we watch.
The din at the Century Palace is deafening. Nobody except me looks the least bit sleepy. Dozens of men bark into cellular phones, comparing odds and deciding where and how much to plunge. There's no air of formality. To a Hong Konger, pleasure is a business, and the expatriate bettors here are stripped down to the essentials—blue jeans, leather jackets, Mild Seven cigarettes, Cantonese tip sheets and chocolate-brown Canadian hundred-dollar bills.
"They all dress the same," says Tak Chen, a part owner of this teletheater. "Bums or billionaires—you can't tell."
"Why do the Chinese love to gamble?" I ask Chen. (The name Chen means virtue or morality.)
"Over the past 4,000 years," he replies, " China has been dominated by poor people. Eighty percent of the Chinese people live in poverty. So you go for hope."