Looking like a pak ah pu ticket

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:

Pak ah pu ticket

(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.

3 comments

  1. Grant D, Sydney says:

    My grandparents commonly used the phrase ‘not worth a pakapoo ticket’ as an expression of worthlessness. I still try and use it wherever possible just to keep it alive.

  2. Paul Henley says:

    I first came across this expression in the Army in the 1970s and am pleased to report that I still use it and where I now live, in a remote area of PNG all of my staff are using it as well along with the 2000 strong local community.

    I was presented with a rather complex reporting spreadsheet recently developed by someone who subscribed to the Make it as complex and confusing as you can, set and was asked by the Chinese backers of the company to simplify it, My comment to them that id did look like a Pak ah pu ticket was met with gales of laughter, so it appears it is still in use in certain quarters in Hong Kong.

  3. Peter Mackenzie says:

    Hello

    Re Item on Pak ah pu tickets, by Kate Bagnell, 2010.

    In the item, there’s a quote included from Kel Richards (then ABC staff) about his belief that the saying “[like] a pakapoo ticket had died out.

    Pleased to be able to inform you that Kel was incorrect, and the saying is still used within my family, in Newcastle NSW.

    Email exchange below, provides more detail for anyone interested.

    cheers

    Peter Mackenzie
    Westbury, Tasmanua
    petermac1984@hotmail.com

    Fascinating, thanks for all that.

    There is so much local lexical variation in Australia. What we called things growing up in Perth is unknown to folks here in Qld of the same generation and vice versa. But the variation is mostly at the word level, we don’t have the extensive regional variation found in the US and UK, which is understandable, given the general concentration of our population into urban centres as opposed to the long periods of spread out occupation in those countries.

    Fun, innit?

    Rob

    On 4 Jul 2014, at 10:30 am, peter Mackenzie wrote:

    Hi Rob

    Thanks for your reply, really appreciate it.

    I didn’t hear you talk to Red Symons. It was actually your recent item on “The Conversation” that gave me your name. I enjoyed that item as well, so thanks for that.

    I think there is a strong likelihood of the “poo tickets” evolving from “Like a Pakapoo ticket” (one alternative spelling Pakapu – probably others as well).

    That possibility was suggested on an online “Phrase Finder” website – as below: In response to a question about “poo tickets”.

    “like a pakapoo/pakapu ticket phr. [1950+] (Aus.) said of anything untidy, complex, incomprehensible. … [Chinese pidgin _puk-ah-pu ticket_, a form of betting slip used by Chinese gamblers; properly known as _pai-ke-p’iao_, lit. ‘white pigeon ticket’, it was a small square of paper marked with 80 Chinese characters; the gambler chose some of these, usu. 10, and, depending on how many matched that day’s winning combination, would make a small profit for their sixpenny stake]
    From _Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang_ by Jonathon Green”

    My late Aunt from Newcastle, used to say “Like a pak of poo ticket” (and I think from memory, singular ticket rather than tickets).

    Her daughter (my cousin) still uses the saying, as does a second cousin who lives at Raymond Terrace, north of Newcastle.

    My Aunt and cousins had no idea of where the saying came from, or any other meaning (I checked that with them), so no knowledge of it’s connection to the Chinese and gold-mining days.

    I found the idea fascinating that our family connection is coal-mining, and the Hunter Valley, not gold-mining, but he we were with this saying still being used. Wonderful really.

    And there never was a connection to gold-mining from what I know of family history.
    So more likely picked up somehow from it’s use in Sydney. But that’s only guessing.

    In Tasmania, I am known as a “blow-in” ie blown across the water from the mainland, a bit like flies and mosquitos!.

    But also for being a “yaffler” (never stops talking), or writing in this case. (Yaffle is English for the Green Woodpecker – noisy)

    But before stopping, just wanted to ask if you had heard “As solid as a Goulburn Jew” which was used from the 1840’s in NSW. I’d expect it not to be used now, but given the Pakapoo saying, who knows?

    And finally, there was a saying I heard in Newcastle “Chuck a Junny” (my spelling) akin to “chuck a wobbly/spit the dummy”.
    I don’t think it was very widespread, may even have been very local around my area.
    Junny is slang for a Thai pimp according to some online sites – so I can’t even begin to follow that one!.

    Anyway, I hope the above may be a bit of interest

    Cheers

    Peter Mackenzie
    Westbury, Tasmania
    petermac1984@hotmail.com

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