Gamblers stake fortunes - and lives - on Hong Kong lottery

February 12th, 2009 - 10:35 am ICT by IANS  

Hong Kong, Feb 12 (DPA) Behind drawn curtains, an 18-year-old who spends his daylight hours hiding from loan sharks paces nervously back and forth in his shabby rented room in Zhenxiong. He is contemplating one last, desperate gamble.

“If I can just make one more winning bet, I can turn my fortunes around,” Gu Yungui says. “I’ve already lost almost 60,000 yuan ($8,780). This is my last chance.”

Gu is the victim of a phenomenon that began as a localised craze in southern China and spread across the country: Underground bets on Hong Kong’s weekly Mark 6 lottery.

The craze has spread to almost every corner of the nation since the late 1990s and caught up such huge sums that Communist Party officials have labelled it a social plague.

Every week, millions of yuan are staked upon whether the bonus ball drawn in Hong Kong’s lottery will be odd or even or, for those willing to try for potentially huge payouts, the exact number.

From Zhenxiong in south-west Yunnan province, to the central provinces of Hubei and Hunan to coastal towns and villages in Fujian, tens of thousands of people pore over mass-produced prediction leaflets trying to figure out what the winning ball will be.

Gu, whose agony is detailed in a popular southern China newspaper, caught the bug at high school when a fellow student gave him a photo-copied A4 sheet with clues and codes to pick the winning number. He heard stories of people amassing fortunes.

For a student struggling by on an allowance of $30 a month, it made perfect sense. “You can bet 100 yuan and make 4,000 yuan,” he reasoned. “I knew that if I could win just once, I would solve my problems for years to come.”

Instead, one big win turned out to be just the beginning of Gu’s problems. After a handful of failed attempts, Gu chose the winning number and picked up a 3,000-yuan jackpot.

Buoyed by his success, he placed bigger and bigger bets, borrowing money to chase after every losing bet. All his tuition money was squandered and in one week alone he lost $1,300.

He found himself facing huge debts and no way of paying. Grim stories of the violent retribution meted out to non-payers by loan sharks haunted him and he went into hiding.

Gu’s salvation lay in one final gamble, he believed. For the last six draws, the bonus ball had been an even number. He was certain that the next bonus ball would be a green ball and odd. He just needed to borrow enough to be able to wipe out his debts.

It is a belief that bedevils thousands of victims. By 2003, an estimated one million bets went on each Mark-6 draw in China, with punters ranging from farmers and workers to teachers and party officials.

Big winners acquire a mythical status. The losers are spoken of in hushed tones - people like farmer Chen Changren from Miaogeng village who committed suicide by swallowing a packet of rat poison after running up debts of $10,000.

So how did the craze begin and why do people stake large sums on the outcome of a lottery run hundreds of miles away?

Hong Kong anthropologist Joseph Bosco and a team of researchers from the Chinese University have spent years examining the phenomenon.

Bosco found that gamblers in China believe numbers are picked in Hong Kong up to a year in advance and the televised draw - which they learn of through newspaper or oral reports usually the following day - is a charade.

Most important, however, a privileged few know what the numbers will be and send out coded messages to be picked up by the intuitive. They will even leak clues through television programmes and newspaper “cheat sheets”, gamblers believe.

“In one area, when (British children’s TV programme) the Teletubbies came on, everyone would stop what they were doing and watch it because they were convinced the show contained clues to the winning number,” Bosco said.

“The numbers are not viewed as random. Picking the correct number is thought to require intelligence and cleverness.”

“There’s a general feeling that life is unfair, that everything is rigged. On one level, it is an indictment of the system in China - people think it’s corrupt and that things aren’t fair, that the cadres and the government are taking advantage.”

In Zhenxiong, meanwhile, Gu Yungui is cursing a missed opportunity. Just as he foresaw, an odd ball coloured green was drawn - but no one would advance him the cash to gamble his way out of trouble.

Until they do, Gu, along with tens of thousands of other chronic gamblers, lives in a twilight world waiting for the opportunity to pick the magic ball that will turn his fortunes - and his life - around.

Related Stories

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Posted in World |