FAN TAN … Macau & Hong Kong, 1981
So, have you ever played FanTan?
I had been hanging around the Macau gaming table for 30 minutes or so when I realized that there were forty or fifty Chinese fellows looking at me. Cool stares, side long glances, furtive appraisals, repeated turning heads. The fact that I was the only white guy on the floating casino certainly had me wondering. I began to look around for some respite, studying ceilings, looking into the corners, out the open air windows watching the crowds moving along the wharf in front of the old shop house fronts. It struck me then that I might be in a sticky situation and my mind began to process a range of options that would allow me to either get out right then or plan to make a run for it as soon as the game ended. How I happened to have gotten into this situation meant nothing at the time, the only thought was how much danger, if any, I was in and what I was going to do about it……
It started in late spring of 1981, I took a month off from working for Bob Derby at Intel and headed for Kashmir and Ladakh. Ladakh is sometimes called Little Tibet – a storied mountain kingdom, and I was off with Hugh Swift for 3 weeks of high altitude trekking. On the way to India I stopped off in Hong Kong. I inquired about the possibility of going into the People’s Republic of China. The US had only “renormalized” relations two years before; individual travel was not allowed but tours were.
I found a 3 night tour with visa that went 50 miles up the Pearl River to Canton/QuangZhou and signed on for it as a side trip when I came back from Ladakh through Hong Kong.
Three weeks later, after a stunning set of Himalayan hikes above 16,000 feet, I was back in the Mandarin Hotel on Hong Kong Island and was anticipating an interesting trip into “Red China”.
I had extended my time in the Crown Colony to 7 days with a couple of days on the back end for safety. It had been raining and blowing since I’d landed from Delhi and there was little to do but soak in the pools and spas and get final fittings for my suit at Francis Yu’s Dad’s shop in Tsim Tsa Tsui.
After a couple of nights I went down to the hydrofoil pier and got on a 50 foot hydrofoil to take me up to Canton. Before we started they announced that, as the storm was growing stronger, and was approaching typhoon strength, we may not get to Canton. As we set out into the delta and worked our way around the hundreds of boats in the estuary I had that gnawing feeling you get when annoying issues may loom in your travel. Well, it didn’t seem all that rough but after about an hour the captain came out and announced we would have to turn back. The storm was too strong to allow the lightweight foil to get up the river.
I have been to Hong Kong dozens times. The ideal amount of days to stay there, unless you have a pleasure boat to sail through the 200 plus islands, is about 3 or 4 days. Well, between coming thru to begin the trip and the days there so far on return I had been there 6 days already and had 5 days more to kill. What to do? I checked planes and could find nothing to get me home (in those days there were few flights across the Pacific – most people traveled on PanAm 1 which circled the earth east to west or PanAm 2 that went West to East). I looked for flights that worked to get me to Bangkok or Manila and back – no luck.
I hiked up to the top of Victoria Peak, took the bus over to the storied Repulse Bay Hotel for breakfast, went to Satellite Jewelers to buy some jewelry…well that killed a couple of days. I took a small ferry to Cheung Chau – the “dumbbell island” and wandered its ancient alleys full of smells and sounds of the families living open into them;
kids and coolies rushing up and down them; peering into living rooms and incomprehensible shops; part of the living organism of the village.
Cheung Chau island – still a top sight
After that there were still 3 days left and only one thing to do – head for Macau.
Storied, remote, dangerous Macau. The scene of so many murky murder mysteries and spy stories. Vague memories of Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell’s sultry come-hither looks and black and white french movies with teaming streets and closed curtains .The last remaining Portuguese possession in Eastern Asia and the only legal gambling town on the whole damned continent. Add to that the opportunity for a boat trip across the whole of the Pearl River mouth and my tickets were all but booked.
There were two ways to get there – I took the Hydrofoil for speed but planned to return on the steamship. We moseyed out through the teaming harbor full of junks, sanpans, coastal steamers, sailing ships, ferry’s, freighters and once clear of Hong Long Island the boat climbed up on its foils and took off. The estuary of the Pearl or better yet Zhu (Pearl) Jiang (River) is probably the busiest mass of harbor and river traffic in the world. It not only serves Canton (QuangZhou), by itself the fourth busiest port in the world, but also three other rivers and Hong Kong, ShenZhen, and Macau.The Pearl River Estuary, 65km from HK to Macau & 60 million folk. Its mass of islands made for a never-ending sightseeing ride.
Boats crossed before and behind us in a white waked dance. We headed south past Lantau Island with its Buddhist monasteries and temples hidden in its lush forested mountains, past craggy rocks, net constructions, and small fishing towns, mining operations, and rice fields in small valleys.
The bumpy ride took but 45 minutes and as we slowed down off the skis and settled into the wake I could see the lone, modern casino sitting on a small ridge above the pier. It was a garish eyeball popper, with an eight story, round hotel, pink wash, a couple of massive golden crowns on top, baubles, foo foos, flagpoles, arabesque arches galore. It had been build 8 years before by Stanley Ho and his pals (he of such legal problems and a very demanding wife). At that time there was only that one newer casino, the Casino Lisboa, and back in the inner port a floating casino on an old paddle wheel boat called the Macau Palace. There were also many small “parlors” where you could play various Chinese games. The Casino Lisboa was an incongruous sight because it seemed to be the only building over four stories on the whole island.
The “city” of Macau in1981 was still a grid of stucco and tile shophouses on a flat tidal peninsula about a kilometer wide between the estuary and the inner harbor.
I decided to leave the modern casino till later and wander the old streets looking for snapshots. The city dated way, way back to the mid 1500’s and sure looked it. It was not a wealthy city, at least for those who lived there, and the buildings had a moist, mildewy patina and were peeling like week-old pizza. It didn’t feel like a place to hang after midnight – better to be back in WanChai. The big money was as a smuggling center for the masses of goods entering the PRC “Up the Pearl River” and that money didn’t stay there long. I was to learn more about that running Intel’s Asian business 22 years later. The present population enjoys a much different place in the wealth hierarchy being one of the world’s richest cities according to the World Bank. Then though the narrow alleys and arched, covered sidewalks had a delicious flavor of corruption with a side smell of frying fish and baby quail.
The cross island street finally debouched onto the wharf of the Inner Port. Lines of laundry flying sampans and decrepit junks spread out on the cool misty bay. Just up the quay was the goal of the quest – the Macau Palace – the famed floating casino. I could feel the spirit of Nathan Detroit and Nicely Nicely as I slowly looked the boat over and then moved up and onto the gangway.
The old wooden ship was a deep, mahogany red color with fantastic carvings of gods, warriors, sacred animals, garlands, fruit, all painted in rainbows of golds, blues, and reds. It had a couple of decks with games spread out amongst bars and cashiers’ windows.
It was reasonably early in the afternoon and while there was some action, it wasn’t hopping by any means. I only saw Chinese – not a gringo in sight. There were a couple of roulette wheels, some chuck-a-luck stands, and a variety of simple looking card games.The walls were open to the air with misty sea on one side and the masses of movement on the wharf on the other. Most of the gamblers were dressed in simple drab shirts and pants with a few Mao jackets thrown in.
As I moved up the wide staircase to the upper floor the tenor of the action became more intense. There were busy blackjack tables, a mahjong section, and several games with cards and tablets
– I had nary a clue what they were.
But towards the back of the deck a ruckus of chatter spread out like the buzzing of a hundred million bees. It was the FanTan table and there were over forty or fifty gamers cram’d around the table, all talking at once. Ahhh, action!
I like to slink around Asian places.
Temples, markets, town centers are all made for slow walking. Not a saunter; and much slower than an amble. But with steady progress – so not anything like a loiter. It is really a “potentially purposeful moving dawdle”. The potentially purposeful is important because everyone who is a regular, be they seller, peddler, shopkeeper, beggar, or priest, knows you are there and is alert to the fact that they might be able to profit from your presence – ergo they welcome you into their world. In SE Asian markets it is important to find a place to have a coffee and flirt with the mama-san; and it is good to lean up against a wall and concentrate on some third party action which is going on – like an offering ceremony; tis good to buy a string of tube roses or have an elephant bless your head…all good for luck. It may be an oxymoron to have a purposeful dawdle but who knows?
A casino is not an ideal place to dawdle because there are actually hard men and cops hanging around as well, but there is no other way to learn the territory. So I dawdled around the boat on the end where the Fan-Tan action was – gazing out the windows here and there, cruising past the table now and then, pausing to stand near a croupier, checking out the accouterment … you know the drill.
So, have you ever played FanTan?
FanTan is a bizarrely simple, distant third cousin of roulette. It’s literal translation is “repeated divisions”.
It is played on a green felt table the size of a regulation snooker table only with no bumpers – about six feet by ten feet. There are five croupiers – four men handle the money ( they are called “t’án pong”) and one man handles the wand (he is the main guy and called “t’án kún”)
The centerpiece of the game is a large, jumbled pile of several hundred polished, matte finished, white discs – each one with hemispheric sides, not flat but not round; about the size of a Tums tablet – kind of like an old movie flying saucer – no markings whatsoever. I guess you could use buttons or beans but there is an element of motion on how the discs will move across the green baize which is important…very smooth, no flips or catches. But for simplicity I will call the discs “beans” or “chiclets”.
When I came to the table I had never seen the game or read about it. Apparently a game had just ended since large bills were being handed out and the men around the table were beginning to mill. I decided that I’d watch a bit, try and figure it out, and then maybe play. Here is how it is played….
THE EQUIPMENT: You have the table, the beans and the wand-man has a single polished, lacquered, bamboo wand – about a yard long. There are, at a big Fan-Tan table, a hoard of well over 200 beans to start with.
THE BET: There are only four things to bet on; they are the numbers one, two, three, and four. There is only one time in the movement of one game when you can win or lose, that is the last sweep of the wand.
THE GOAL: The goal is simply to correctly guess how many beans will be left on the table after the wand-man has culled out the last complete set of four beans. The “tan kun”, or croupier, uses the small bamboo stick to remove the buttons from the heap, four at a time, until the final batch is reached. If it contains four buttons, the backer of No. 4 wins; if three, the backer of No. 3 wins; if two, the backer of No. 2 wins and if one the backer of No. 1 wins.
All winning wagers are paid true odds less a 5% commission. For example, assume a bettor has $100 wagered on a 3 to 1 wager. If the bet wins, the bettor is paid $300 less 5% or $285
HOW THE GAME PROCEEDS: OK, about five minutes after the last bets were paid off on the proceeding game, the wand-man lifts a rather large wicker basket which hangs from the table to his left and dumps a mass of beans, as I said several hundred, into the center of the table..imaging an enormous pile of chicklets.
At that point the betting starts. Each one of the four “bet croupiers” handles only one number: 1, 2, 3, or 4. As you passed your hong kong dollar bill, perhaps a hundred or a five hundred, towards your bet croupier and called out you number, he takes your bill and then folds in in a special and unique way. He will remember who you are and what you bet. Let’s say you picked 3 – all the gamblers who pick number 3 will pass their bets to the “3 man” who will fold it in a unique way. He then lays it on top of the last folded bill set so, as the betting progresses, a wandering, string of origami bills snakes around the quarter of the table belonging to number 3 bets.
After five minutes or so the “wand croupier” pulls out, from under the table, the “tan koi” which is a large silver or brass dome, (like you might see in an expensive french restaurant). He proceeds to raise it high above the bean pile and then slither it down deep into the pile of the chiclets. Of course as it shivers its way down it captures a good portion of the beans..maybe 150-180 of them, underneath.
Meanwhile the betting continues..1, or 2, or 3, or 4.
How many beans will be left after the last full wand of 4 beans is shepherded into the basket?
To tidy up, the wand croupier, by hand, smartly sweeps the beans which were left outside the dome, whisking them into the basket.
Then he hits the wand handle on the side of the dome ringing everyone to pay attention. Then with a dramatic swing he smoothly lifts the dome; unveiling the remainder beans.
There it is – the final pile. How many? How many will be left after all complete sets of four are taken?
THAT IS THE QUESTION THAT PROMPTS THE BET!
In any popular betting game there is a steady build up of tension; a profile of energy that builds exponentially to an explosion at climax. The longer the answer remains unknown the more the tension builds: which horse will win the derby? the tension starts the night before as you buy the Racing Form at the smoke shop, by the time you are looking at the magnificent animals in the paddock you’ve talked with friends, looked at the odds moving up and down, checked the “scratches”, bought a “hot tips list”, and the uncertainty and concern is palpable. This is even before the horses are loaded into the starting gate…let alone approaching the clubhouse turn.
Fan Tan’s elegance in constructing this energy curve is the unique appeal of this game – it last about 30 minutes. An overwhelming mass of beans, the crush of betters stretching hundred dollar bills to the croupier, the run of simple numbers in the last 5 or 10 games, what number just won, the snake like movement of the silver dome as it descends, the gravelly sound as it drivers into the pile, the bell-ring of the wand handle, Yet unlike races or sports games there are no fall behinds, no drop-outs, no reduction in potential to tell you more about your chances of winning or losing. The odds were 1 out of 4 when you walked up to the table a half hour ago and there are still four, only four chances to win: 1,2,3,or4.
So, as a conductor raises his baton, the croupier gives a small personal flourish of his wand, and smoothly, softly, and quietly descends and gracefully cuts into the edge of the pile firmly culling out the first set of four beans. Ah yes he is a master – he would never cull out any number but four. The game is now on! In steady rhythm he culls four, four, four, and four more. The pile slowly begins to shrink as the culled beans slide across the baize and are swept into the wicker basket.
The final moments to bet are at hand…the wand-man calls out a warning then as the pile approaches half size, still large enough to be opaque to the bettor. Gamblers yell for attention to the bet-croupiers: one, four, one, two, one, three, thrusting hundreds and thousand to him.…!! Then he rings a bell and all new bets are off. The bettors are helpless – bets are down – but the answer of win or lose is still minutes away. The tension is unbearable as you realize it is all over except the laughing or crying.
NOW that was the point when I realized that I might well be in trouble. No matter which number I had bet on, I had either jinxed the bettors or brought them good joss. I was the only white guy at the table, and I realized that everyone WAS WATCHING ME.
It never occurred to me before I had placed my bet but, the fact was that, in the minds of all the chinese gamblers, when I put my $100HK on the number four I changed the whole dynamic of the luck energy.
There are few people in the world as overtly superstitious as the chinese. You can see them in the faint mists of dawn burning money in supplication, their temples are a riot of incenses & offerings; few are the homes without shrines and few are the days without prayers for good fortune. There are sacred trees and rocks and dressed gods and goddesses. It is part of the immense charm and wonder of this part of the world. And the Chinese have specific superstitions when they are gambling: wear red, don’t touch one’s shoulder with your hand, don’t talk about books, avoid seeing monks or nuns, etc. Each gambler has their own superstitions and they take them very seriously I am told. I was sure I evoked some superstitious reaction in their minds…simply I was either “good luck” or “bad luck”,,there was no in between.
Well, there was never any question that I would bet the FOUR. That’s always been my favorite number..it’s like blue.
– But to the gamblers being either good luck or bad luck, whatever number I picked would either help them or hurt them according to how each viewed me.
– for those who thought I was bad luck and on whose number I had not bet – well they were relieved.
– for all who thought I was good luck and did not bet on their number were a bit pissed. The variables were innumerable.
If I had been the first to put down on the four then that would have been one thing..but I had waited till the last few minutes to declare. The gamblers that I was concerned about were precisely those who had bet on 4, who thought I was a bad-luck, and had watched their hard earned dollars go bye bye with that smelly big nosed gringo putting his lousy $14US on top of his week’s pay! Maybe those were the fellows whose epicanthic folded black eyes were throwing thunderbolts at this chubby green eyed Irishman.
The bean pile shrank steadily by the second to the metronome of the wand-meister’s wrist.
The sound rose as the energy melee around the table grew.
My calculations were over.
If I lost then I would immediately take a brisk walk down the stairs, down the gangway, up the wharf, and back to the civilized safety of the Casino Lisboa. The probability that someone would have lost enough money to want to mug me was slim but you never know. More likely several people would want me removed from the action so I wouldn’t upset the odds calculus. Or maybe just the thought of a gweilo way off the beaten tourist track and the appeal of a few thousand Hong Kong would be enough.
Finally I could see that there were only a few more wand swipes left..what would it be one, two, three…
no no no – YES YES YES!!!
YEAH 4 it was NUMBER FOUR WINS!!!
# Four payed $285!!
Phew.. “dodged a bullet” is probably a bit too strong..maybe my paranoia had gotten me a little over excited..BUT, in any case, it is probably true that my bet on # 4 would be interpreted by my fellow gamblers as if I had massive good joss… or at least enough idol power on my side to hold off the bully boys till I could get from the floating Macau Palace back to the safety
of Stanley Ho’s Casino Lisboa.
Well that’s the story. I played the game of FAN TAN exactly one time. I bet $100HK which was about $14US at the time and won about $40US. Big Deal!
Without planning it, I went to one of, at that time, the distant corners of the known universe, at least to us Americans.
It was merely an accidental and opportunistic side trip; tacked on to a massively educational and edifying trek into some deep parts of the Himalaya; with Hugh Swift, probably, at the time, the foremost explorer of those mountains.
It was only the first of several “stuck in a monsoon in Hong Kong” experiences. Perhaps that wild night with Chak, and Gary, and Skaugen would be a better tale.
But, just as Ladakh’s magnificent Buddhist monasteries and the snow capped passes of Kashmir, and the sandalwood houseboat we stayed in on Dal Lake, and the flowers of Shalimar and the floating drug store peddling opium and fine hashish are that trip’s memories, that are always with me, so is that $14 bet. Fourteen bucks that bought a million dollars of memories and an infinite amount of fun.
Well below was the steamship on which I went back to Hong Kong Island. Three hours and great wontons! try it, you’ll like it.
LATER: Several of these pictures were taken by Karsten Petersen whose website (www.global-mariner.com) is FULL of amazing photo’s of everything from killer storms, to Danish sailing schooners under sail, to beautiful art of this wonderful planet. Any lover of the sea or travel should spend time there. Here were some of his comments to the above post:
Thank you for your mail with your story attached!
You are doing very well indeed, and I do not really have anything to complain about! 🙂 GOOD STUFF!
However, – if I really should put on my “negative complaint hat”, I would wish, that my picture from Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, and my picture from Macau’s inner harbour, – Porto Interior -, were described as such, and NOT just as the Zhu Jiang Estuary!
It is NOT really wrong to refer to those places as the Zhu Jiang Estuary, since the Zhu Jiang actually does flow past and inbetween those places, but I feel it would be better if you were more specific.
But one thing that I totally disagree about, is your remark about the ideal amount of days to stay in Hong Kong! Quote: “- – – – ideal amount of days to stay there is about 3 or 4 days.”
You appear to be a VERY experienced traveller indeed, – but 3 – 4 days is certainly NOT enough if you want to “digest” the true “feeling” and obtain a minimun of knowledge about what goes on, at any given place on earth.
You will need at least 1 month, – minimum! In a month you have a chance to follow what goes on in the local newspapers, – if they have an English language edition -, and you have a good chance to see for yourself, “how things are”!
But you have NO CHANCE to “see how things are” in 3 – 4 days! Of course you can experience something in 3-4 days, – but you cannot possibly go deep into things, and you will miss most of it!
Finally, – but not at least -, in minimun 1 month, you will have time to get in contact with local people, and with a good relationship to a local person, a true treasurehouse of opportunities will open up for you, and you might be able to see and understand a completely new world, that you had no chance to see, understand or experience before!
notes and acknowledgements:
many pictures taken by
Denmark … some of these and many others at: