On 19 March 1930, the Sydney Morning Herald reported the arrest of a white girl, two white men and a Chinese man in a ‘suspect “Pak-a-Pu” den’ in Sydney. Along with the suspects, the police took with them ‘a number of squares of rice paper covered with strange Oriental signs’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 19 March 1930).
These little paper squares were pak ah pu tickets and they would have looked something like this:
(This ticket was passed on to me through my mum by an amateur local historian from Epping in Sydney. I don’t know where he got it from or what year it dates from – probably early 20th century. The square is about 9.25 by 8.5cm, on a piece of paper that’s 14 by 11.5cm. Here’s another one, from New Zealand, which has been used.)
Pak ah pu was one of the popular forms of gambling that made their way overseas with nineteenth-century Chinese migration to Australia (and New Zealand, the USA and other places). Its name came from the Cantonese baakgaap piu – literally meaning ‘pigeon’s note’ or ‘pigeon’s ticket’ – and it was what was commonly known as the Chinese lottery. Spellings vary, including pak ah pu, pak a poo, pak a pu, with or without spaces and hyphens.
Marlon K Hom provides this explanation of pak ah pu in his book Songs of Gold Mountain (University of California Press, 1987, pp. 25–28):
Baakgaap piu is a lottery game based on the first eighty words of the ‘Thousand Word Prose’ (Qian zi wen), a well-known four-word-per-line prose-poem. No words are duplicated in the prose; hence there are eighty different spots on which the players can bet. A player wins if his choice of words matches the winning word(s)… The game’s popularity was due to the fact that, in addition to being a simple lottery that required no skill but only luck, it did not require presence of the player, who could carry on his usual business while playing the game. Agents in storefronts wrote up the lottery tickets for the players; in addition, couriers for the operators were readily available to pick up or deliver bets and winnings. This game was also well received by non-Chinese players. The Japanese mockingly called it baka (‘foolish’), a play on its Chinese name, baakgap (lit., ‘pigeon’). It was also immensely popular among white players, so much so that, according to Stewart Culin, white casinos later adopted it and turned it into the game of Race Horse Keno, and later, simply Keno. Here, eighty numbers, written from left to right and top to bottom, replace the original Chinese characters, which were arranged from top to bottom and right to left.
The Stewart Culin that Hom refers to was an American ethnographer who, in 1891, wrote a paper entitled The Gambling Games of the Chinese in America. The Elliott Avedon Virtual Museum of Games at the University of Waterloo (Canada) has more information about Stewart Culin and an online transcript of his paper on Chinese gambling.
In Australia, pak a pu was one of those parts of Chinese culture that became so familiar that it entered the vernacular. Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English lists the expression to ‘look like a pakapu ticket’, meaning to be completely indecipherable (8th edition, edited by Paul Beale, pp. 850–51).
The ABC’s Kel Richards recalled this about the expression:
Any writing that is difficult to decipher was once labelled ‘a pakapoo ticket’…
The origin of the expression is a Chinese gambling game played with slips of paper marked with columns of characters…
…It’s an expression that seems to have died out, but still I remember being told, as a school boy: ‘This exercise book looks like a pakapoo ticket, Richards.’ From that use it was extended to describe anything that was untidy or disorderly. The earliest citation for this sort of use is from Eric Lambert’s novel, based on his wartime experiences, called Twenty Thousand Thieves (1951) in which an officer complains that the platoon’s pay book ‘looks like a pak-a-poo ticket’…
Because of the inability of Aussies to read these Chinese characters, such slips were said to look like untidy scribblings. ‘Pakapoo ticket’ is another distinctively Aussie contribution to the English language. (Kel Richards, ABC NewsRadio website)
And another small reminder of the widespread presence of the Chinese in 19th- and early 20th-century Australia and their influence on colonial life in many ways, large and small.