From car number plates to telephone and bank account numbers, Hong Kong is well known with its people’s obsession for lucky or auspicious numbers. The number eight, in particular, is much prized because of it rhymes with the Cantonese word for prosperity. Conversely, the number four is shunned because it has connotations with the word for death. A single digit 8 on a car number plate is likely to be worth millions of dollars.
Such concern for prosperity may, in a way, have contributed to Hong Kong’s rapid rise to become a rich city in such a short time, and a habitually risk loving people cannot help but punt in the hopes of quickly growing their riches.
At the races
Hong Kong tries its luck at the races (pictured above). The first racetrack at Happy Valley still runs races to this day. The first race was held here in 1846, at the time the only suitable land on the island where a “flat” race could be held. In the early days, races were held only once a year, around the Lunar New Year. Today, races are held either here or at the newer and larger Shatin racetrack on weekends. The racetrack at Happy Valley has recently been upgraded to a grassed track. Tall buildings shoot up all around the racetrack, leaving it the only patch of flat land in the area.
On race days, especially at night, the atmosphere is literally electric, especially during night races when the track is brightly lit up. Night races are held at Happy Valley on alternate Wednesday nights. In days past the Keswick family of Jardines fame held sway at the races, but the stewards of today are a diverse and ethnically local group. The ordinary folk flock to the races too, putting in their little bets in the hope of winning big. You can pay an entrance fee of HK$ 10 to enter and join the crowd. An overseas visitor package gives you access to more parts of the track than an ordinary ticket does, while the Racing in Style Package worth HK$ 543 — 595 gives 12 guests a buffet and viewing from the exclusive Jockey Club Box.
Modern racing is a combination of spectator sport, a “sport of kings” and also a casino of sorts. However, the Jockey Club has striven to diversify and upgrade its image and that of racing. The takings of a single race day in Hong Kong are said to exceed a year’s worth of betting at some tracks in Europe and North America. The Jockey club has given generously back to the public with donations to charity and by funding the construction of Hong Kong’s Ocean Park. It also operates the Mark Six Lottery, the only legal lottery here.
Macau — possibly the biggest punting magnet in Asia
For a table punting experience Hong Kong takes to sea. Nowadays, with cruise ships equipped with on-board casinos embarking from here, choices are more varied, but not too long ago, punters itchy for some action took a boat to get to Macau, where gambling has been legal since 1847. The trip can now be taken via fast hydrofoil or a slower ferry. It can be done as a day trip, but be sure about the boat schedules and weather conditions.
One of the best known landmarks of Macau is the Hotel Lisboa. The round building located on the waterfront, with its golden crown, looks like an exercise in kitsch. However, it is actually a fine example of very aggressive use of feng shui principles. The entrance is shaped like a tiger’s mouth, trapping the wealth of those who come to try their luck. The building is shaped like a birdcage, the better to keep the wealth relieved from the gamblers from flying away. Constant renovation is carried out to re-align the feng shui with the changing requirements of each passing year — what was once an auspicious location for something may hold the opposite value in the next year.
Invariably, luck tends to run out now and then. You then have to find out how you can turn the corner. Commonly found at nightmarkets on some of the streets of Hong Kong, the palm reader may be able to divine your future and even offer some advice on what to do and what best to avoid. For a different kind of divination, head on to the Wong Tai Sin Temple. It is located in New Kowloon and is often very busy. In order to determine your fate, you first take a cylinder full of thin sticks. Then you shake it up and down, until one of the sticks fall out. You then pass your stick to a soothsayer who can interpret the stick to tell you about your future.
The Cantonese obsession with luck and good fortune may get to be a bit much after a while. If you are a tourist on a short trip, much of this may go over your head. But if you are looking to stay a little longer to learn more about the people, you will notice this aspect of Hong Kong life fairly soon. The obsession with making money here has grown to be coupled with a strong sense that mysterious forces not within our control determine human fates. Superstition and Feng Shui appear to have a universal hold on the people, but it sure makes for a more interesting story about why things are done differently in Hong Kong and Macau.