Tag: white women

Chinese Christmas box

Early on Christmas morning 1879, the residents of Lambie Street, Cooma, received a visit from their neighbour, Jimmy. With a Christmas greeting, he presented them each with a dish of new potatoes and a piece of prime pork, products of his Lambie Street market garden (Manaro Mercury, 31 December 1879). From childhood I’ve loved the sense of history that Lambie Street exudes, with its iron-roofed stone and brick cottages and their snug verandahs. It was Cooma’s first street and Jimmy’s garden would have sat on the low side of the road, an area that ran down to the creek and was subject to flooding.

‘A Chinese Christmas box’, Illustrated Australian News, 31 December 1880

Jimmy’s small act of Christmas cheer was repeated over and again by Chinese hawkers, gardeners and storekeepers around the Australian colonies. European businesses also made gifts of a ‘Christmas box’ to their customers, but the generosity of the Chinese at Christmas was something that lingered well into the twentieth century, continuing on after European traders abandoned the practice. The memory of the Chinese Christmas box lingered even longer. A 1937 article reminiscing about the early days of the Tambaroora goldfield remembered the prosperity of the Chinese stores of Sam Choy, On Ti Kee, Sam Gon Shin and Ah Tye, achieved through the regular custom of the white population. ‘Perhaps it was the never failing Christmas box forthcoming at the Chinese stores that attracted a certain amount of patronage from the whites’, the article suggested somewhat unkindly. White women dealt regularly with the Chinese, particularly with the hawkers who brought high-quality fresh fruit and vegetables to their door each day, and a number of illustrations from the newspapers and journals of the time depicted their congenial Christmastime meetings.

‘A Chinese trader making presents to his customers’, The Graphic, 24 December 1887

The Chinese were best known for their gifts of jars of preserved ginger; it was ‘the very best of its kind, and as such [was] a very acceptable addition to the Christmas Day dessert’ (Newcastle Morning Herald, 28 December 1908). Others like Jimmy of Lambie Street presented customers with fresh produce or nuts, fans or handkerchiefs. In 1917, the civic-minded Chinese gardeners and fruit hawkers of Wagga even presented the district hospital with a cheque for £14/10/ instead of giving their usual Christmas boxes to their customers (Albury Banner, 14 December 1917).

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.