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Editors' Pick

Can Abacuses Count That High?


The sharp staccato of Cantonese swirled around Ming’s Restaurant as twelve of us sat, shoulders almost touching, at a round banquet table. Steam billowed from the swinging kitchen doors, wafting a seductive scent of steamed buns and ginger. For a moment I was a child again, going to yum cha with my parents after church on Sunday, sterilizing my chopsticks in hot tea before lifting the first dim sum dumpling to my lips.

I smiled at the familiar faces of my aunts and uncles, all impeccably dressed as if this were an occasion. Maybe it was. Ever since Mom died over ten years ago – so soon after Dad – I’d made it a habit to fly down from Seattle around Mom’s birthday to treat her siblings and their spouses to a dim sum lunch. These precious Bay Area visits allowed me to catch up on family news and keep Mom’s memory alive. Even though I was far from the personification of my mother, every time I mentioned her name it endeared me to them. Being loved for simply being born into this family felt like an incredible gift.

I’d squeezed into a seat next to Uncle Vic, Mom’s youngest brother, thrilled to catch him in a chatty mood. Today’s tactic, chatting up Mom’s family to snoop on Dad’s, was proving richer than I could have imagined. Tangled threads of four generations of American family lore were slowly weaving into place.

“I didn’t know your family knew Dad’s family all along,” I said. “Mom said she met Dad in 1947 when she was fifteen.”

“Oh yes,” my eldest aunt interjected from two seats away, raising her voice over the clanking of dishes, “Right when she saw him, she set her sights on marrying him!”

I suppressed a smile. No one had ever been so blunt. When Mom was fifteen, one of her older cousins was dating Dad. Somehow Mom wangled an introduction, and the rest, they say, is history.

“If the families knew each other, what did they think of each other?” I knew not to ask, did they like each other? Asking an open-ended question would be better received than an intrusive yes/no question. Not only is there a stark difference in tone, but more importantly, no one talks about feelings in my family.

I bit my lip to keep from laughing when Uncle Vic and his sister exchanged meaningful glances. Of course there were secrets. Since childhood I’d noticed the false smiles and whispers when both sides of my family happened by chance to meet. Even as an adult I’d felt torn, guilty, if any of Mom’s relatives popped up at the same Chinese restaurant while I was sitting at a table with Dad’s. Like I’d been caught taking sides. There’d be all the trappings of goodwill – one uncle would order a delectable dish of roast squab to send to the other’s table, the recipient would effuse his thanks. But an oily undercurrent pulsed loud, too close to the surface. Disdain? Resentment? Or a new form of currency that intensified in my parents’ generation – intellectual snobbery? Each side actively measured its success against another because hierarchy mattered. Power, for my Chinese family, was a zero-sum game.

Now I was finding that it all came down to business. Seventy years beyond the reach of the law, Uncle Vic was finally opening up about his family’s role – and by association, Dad’s – in the 1940s heyday of Oakland Chinatown’s illegal gambling business.

“Actually, our father worked for your dad’s father,” said Uncle Vic. “Mun Jung was your grandfather Yeh-Yeh’s big gambling house down the street. They had five cards, so we acted as their franchisees. But we represented other gambling houses too.”

“We?” I frowned. “Who’s this ‘we’ you’re talking about?”

He started, then a sly grin crept over his face. He pointed first at himself before drawing his finger in a circle around the table.

I almost choked on my tea. I felt a chill of trepidation: be careful what you wish for. I’d finally breached my family’s wall of silence, but these bold first-hand accounts also meant that my family – on both sides – was full of crooks, our pockets lined with ill-gotten gains. Previously I’d known only the barest of details. Dad’s father, who died when I was two, had been firmly in the spotlight. Broad-shouldered Yeh-Yeh was the big man in Chinatown, his shiny black hair styled to make him appear taller than his modest five-foot-seven. Motoring around San Francisco and Oakland in his new Cadillac and well-tailored suits, he was known as a generous community builder, an opera singer, a raconteur, a pheasant hunter once featured on the cover of a national hunting magazine with a string of birds cascading down his back. Of course, his back was to the camera, because who would buy a magazine with a Chinaman on the cover? He also ran the biggest gambling house in the heart of Oakland Chinatown at the corner of Eighth and Webster.

In contrast, Mom’s father, my slim and balding Goong-Goong, had been a blank slate. Hiding behind an impenetrable language barrier, he’d never offered me more than an awkward smile. He died when I was fifteen. By then we’d barely exchanged fifty words.

My eldest aunt leaned in again, chopsticks suspended in midair. “Pop was a ja bow,” she said, wrinkling her brow as she thought through the English translation. American-born, she’d attended Stanford University from her freshman year until one semester short of her physiology PhD, so I’d always assumed she thought in English. The language of gambling, and her childhood, was an exception. She lifted her left hand in a fist and slowly added, “Ja means ‘hold.’ Bow means ‘bag.’”

I paused to take in this detail. Holding the bag.

“A bagman?” I blurted incredulously, using a term I knew only through gangster movies. “Goong-Goong was a bagman?” I laughed loudly as she nodded. The sinister phrase “left holding the bag” felt ripe with meaning.

“Well, someone had to do it,” she said, almost defensively. “He knew everyone in Chinatown. They trusted him with their money.”

That trust, I came to know, was well earned. During the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s army was fighting Mao’s over control of mainland China, my maternal grandfather Goong-Goong had traveled across the United States, Chinatown to Chinatown, giving speeches and collecting money to support Chiang’s Kuomintang regime. Even after Chiang fled to Taiwan to form a government-in-exile, thousands of dollars from laundrymen, chefs, and laborers – Chinese immigrants with little to spare – had been sent to Taiwan to support what many believed to be the legitimate Chinese government. For years, Goong-Goong had worked closely with Chiang’s generals. One of those generals had even asked to adopt one of his children, a younger aunt who now sat across the table from me, until my eldest aunt intervened. Back then, Goong-Goong had built a reputation for patriotism. And honesty.

But on a personal level, this was a twist. What was his legacy? Freedom-fighter or lurking-in-the-shadows criminal? Should I be proud or horrified? Amused or appalled? In a dark way, being a bagman made perfect sense. A trusted man with connections, a nimble tongue, and good math skills could apply those talents to multiple other ventures. All he would need is opportunity and luck.

But then it gets tricky. He couldn’t run his gambling business alone. His wife and, most alarmingly, his seven children, were complicit too? Somehow that felt immoral, and incredibly risky. Trusting youngsters with a secret that could land both parents in jail seemed insane. Even if they’d been trained to answer “merchant” when asked what their father did for a living, there were too many chances to slip up. That’s when I knew that our cultural imperative to be quiet and inscrutable was more than politeness. It was a survival tactic.

With new appreciation I glanced around at my other aunts and uncles, all engrossed in conversation. All of them knew how to lie, and to do it well. I struggled to imagine their mother, my tiny Por-Por, four-foot-nine in flats, barking orders to the household in Chinese as the cops pounded on the front door, then calmly pressing her curls into place before sliding on the bolt and cracking open the door. As the cops pelted her with questions, would she peek through the doorway – eyebrows knit, gold front tooth gleaming – and pretend she didn’t understand English? Would she summon one of the kids to her side to translate, an innocent pawn, to buy enough time for someone, anyone, to grab the punch machine and lottery tickets and run the damning evidence to the secret room in the basement?

It’s too much to think of my pious church-going Lutheran relatives like this.

I leaned away as the waiter set a steaming plate of chow mein onto the lazy Susan among the plates of lo bak go, ham sui gok, and the bamboo steamer of ha gow, my favorite dim sum delectables, and gee gerck – pig’s feet – my uncle’s. “Enjoy,” the waiter said without conviction as he gave the Lazy Susan a slow spin and stepped back. The aroma of the soy and oyster-infused sauce on crisp noodles made me momentarily close my eyes and inhale with pleasure. Geung tek,” is what Mom would say, meaning a food craving so strong that it made your mouth drool. The drone of the restaurant and the chatter of the ten other relatives at my table faded into the near distance. Uncle Vic watched the waiter leave, then turned back to me. Once secretive, always secretive.

“We were the runners,” Uncle Vic said, referring to himself and his two brothers. “We delivered the results and paid out the money. Y’see, it really was a family business. In fact, Pop wouldn’t let my older brothers go to college – he needed them to help run the Bok Gop Biu. Pigeon tickets. That’s what we called the lottery.”

Numbers runners. Family business. Ominous-sounding when referring to the Mafia, but in my uncle’s clear yi tones, it sounded like an innocent game. He’d been lucky. At 17, with his two older brothers working the lottery, he’d escaped to UC Berkeley to study engineering, later building a respectable, and legitimate, 40-year career at Lockheed-Martin. He still looked the part, blending in perfectly with other slender men in white short-sleeved shirts, their plastic pocket protectors jammed with mechanical pencils and ball-point pens with inks of assorted colors.

Uncle Vic laughed softly. “Before I was old enough to be a runner, I was the lookout. Every day we drove out to Jack London Square. We had regular customers there. Pop paid me ten cents a week to stand on the corner and watch for cops.”

“Really?” I laughed at the image of a six-year-old Chinese boy in wool knickers and cap nonchalantly toeing his shoe on the curb. So much deception! Deftly I flipped my chopsticks over, lifted a dumpling from the bamboo steamer with the untainted top ends, and set the morsel on my plate. A common courtesy. I flipped the chopsticks back to eat. “And what about Mom?”

“She stayed back at the cigar store with the other girls. She helped punch and bundle the lottery results after we picked them up at Mun Jung.” My uncle’s sharp, even notes hung in the air as he bit into a duck foot with a cartilaginous crunch. He swallowed and nodded at me. “Then the boys delivered them with Pop. We had a regular route.”


In the beginning, the cigar store in Oakland Chinatown was an innocent enough front for their lottery business. The ground floor shop had a counter for selling cigars. A few tables and chairs bordered the front window. Before they moved into the two-story house on Myrtle Street that I remembered, the family lived in the back of the Chinatown building. The ground floor had space for a cramped kitchen and living room, and everyone slept upstairs. But there was a hidden room in the middle of the ground floor where, if it were a legitimate store, the stock area should be. That’s where the big action took place. In this windowless room they counted bets, compiled lottery tickets, and punched the results. As the workhorses of Oakland’s big money lottery business, they represented up to fifteen “cards,” or lottery games, a day. Each game had two drawings a day, seven days a week. The gambling business recognized only three American holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Fourth of July – and two weeks around Chinese New Year.

Why would a cigar store have tables and chairs? Ostensibly they were there for patrons to sit around and gossip. Their real purpose, however, was for show. During police raids, the police would bust up the tables and chairs, throw merchandise on the floor, but assiduously avoid storming the middle room. Everyone, including the Chinatown police, knew that the drill presses and printed lottery tickets were expensive and would be much more difficult to replace.


I leaned in as Uncle Vic pulled an envelope out of his pocket and drew a makeshift map of the Chinatown of yesteryear, a precise street grid with tiny rectangles naming each restaurant, grocery, and gambling establishment he could remember. He tapped on the map at the corner of Eighth and Webster. “Okay, so here’s Mun Jung. And here, just down the block, is where our cigar store was, at 711 Webster. And here, two doors down, is where Pop used to sneak out and gamble at night.” His nonchalance stunned me, as if every kid of that era could tell a similar story. A cluster of illegal gambling houses packed a two-block area. Dotted among the gambling houses were grocery stores and restaurants, the core of the community. Many of those business owners gambled too.

Uncle Vic chuckled, then marked another spot with an X. “And here’s where your dad’s mother sat all day in her car with her chauffeur, crocheting, waiting for her husband to finish work at Mun Jung. I had to walk by her on my way home from school.”

Something in his tone and phrasing – “I had to walk by her…” – caught my attention and I stifled a laugh. My earliest memories of my paternal grandmother Ma-Ma, starting when I was four, were from her annual summer sojourns to Boston to visit our family after her husband’s sudden death. I was told to be polite to my five-foot-tall, 200-pound “pleasingly plump” Ma-Ma and to do whatever she asked. She was often cranky. To atone for my failings, both known and unknown, I’d kept her company on hot sticky evenings when all we could do was sit on the front porch fanning ourselves against the heat until her TV shows came on. Lawrence Welk and Mitch Miller were her favorites. Nowadays we’d label her depressed, but aside from a few whispers about a nervous breakdown, she seemed fairly harmless to me.

I placed my chopsticks across the rim of my empty plate – never on the table – because Ma-Ma was strict about Chinese etiquette. I elbowed Uncle Vic’s arm. “Was she friendly to you?” I couldn’t resist, even though I knew the answer.

“Hah!” he snorted. “I was too afraid of her to say hello. Mun Jung was a big deal, you know.” Uncle Vic was never prone to hyperbole, so as his voice rose, so did my attention. Time to pounce on this opening to probe further, but I didn’t want to sound too eager.

I poured him more tea, my eyes trained down toward his teacup. “So, what happened there in Mun Jung?”

He sounded surprised that I needed to ask. “You know how Keno works?”

As his story unspooled, I had to admire the precision of his memory. Beautiful women provided singing entertainment – and no more, he insisted – in the gambling hall. Mun Jung had five different Keno games: Fook Chong, Fook Loy, Union, Lucky, and one he couldn’t remember. Each game had its own desk, its own cage with lottery balls in it, balls that would be drawn for the afternoon and the evening drawings. To win, a lottery card would need to be marked with the same characters as those on the balls that were drawn.

But unlike Keno cards, which had numbers from one to eighty printed on the cards, forty above the line and forty below, Chinese lottery cards were printed with a singularly refined Chinese touch – the first eighty characters from a famous ancient Chinese poem. This Thousand Character Classic was composed of a thousand unique characters, split into four-character phrases. Commissioned by Emperor Wu in the Liang dynasty (502-549 AD) for his prince to practice calligraphy, the Thousand Character Classic had been used since ancient times as a primer to teach children Chinese characters. “I used to sing the Thousand Character Classic in Chinese school in Oakland. For Chinese kids, it’s kind of like singing the ABCs,” Uncle Vic said. He started reciting the Chinese in a sing-song voice, then switched back to English. “That means, ‘The sky was black and the earth yellow, heavens are vast and limitless.’”

When printed on a card, it had a lyrical effect: you would read the first phrase above the line, the second phrase below the line, the third phrase above the line, and so on. It was a perfect match of culture and expedience, a way to parse your luck into phrases, bits of poetry stirring your heart.


I can see my mother and her siblings now, scrawny light-footed kids, jouncing each other down the sidewalk from the local elementary/middle/high school, their evening’s work ahead of them. While they’ve been in school, their father has scoured the taverns and shipyard, even visited a few homes, taking bets for the afternoon game. With a wad of cash and customers’ cards – each marked with ten chosen characters – the boys help sort and rewrite bets, then meticulously log them into a special ledger. They hop in the car and make sure they deliver marked cards and money to Mun Jung and the other gambling houses by four. At four-fifteen, each desk draws twenty winning balls from the cage. Their father records the results, and they return to the cigar store where the girls are waiting. Using their special drill press, Mom and her eldest sister punch a sheaf of papers with the results of each drawing and bundle a personalized set of results for each customer. As the light of day slowly dims, the two youngest girls help carry papers to the car. As their car cruises slowly, headlights illuminating quiet streets, the boys lean out and toss bundles onto doorsteps. Everyone’s home for dinner by six.

By seven o’clock, their father is on the road again, paying the winners of the afternoon drawing and taking new bets for the night drawing. This time he takes young Vic with him to alert him if the police arrive, for which Vic gets paid ten cents a week. By nine, they’re home logging in bets. After the 10:15 pm drawing, the girls punch the results, and the boys deliver them. Everyone’s finally home by midnight.

“To get a payout, you had to get at least five characters out of ten. For five, I think they paid out two-to-one. For six, something like twenty-to-one.” Uncle Vic scribbled down a set of numbers, held it out and squinted. At eighty, he was still too vain for glasses. “If you got all ten, the payout was 50,000-to-one. Sounds big, doesn’t it? Back then, people just couldn’t imagine a $50,000 win on a dollar ticket. It was more money than they’d ever see in their lifetimes! And if they put down a ten-dollar bet, the payout would be $500,000! That’s what blinded them.”

Would they be like millionaires today? Could they live on those earnings for the rest of their lives? Time for that later. I yanked myself back to my smaller, current focus. My family. “So how did you make money on that?” I asked.

“Our normal cut was fifteen percent. Fifteen percent of a dollar ticket, so we’d make fifteen cents on each one. Y’see, that was for our labor in doing all the running around and for recruiting new business. And that was pretty good money. But we could make more by rewriting the tickets. More risk, more gain.” Big gambling houses like Mun Jung gave peddlers the option to keep fifty percent of a ticket’s price, but if that ticket won, they’d be liable for fifty percent of the payout. So, to gain thirty-five cents on the dollar, they might lose fifty. Because many peddlers were gamblers too, this was almost irresistible.

“With some rewriting of the tickets and commission, we netted about $100 a day, which was good money back then.” Uncle Vic handed me the envelope he’d written on and waved away my offer of more tea. His youth marked by the vagaries of Lady Luck – charity handouts from the church one day, college tuition paid the next – he ended with a droll laugh, “And the way the payouts went, the House always won.”


From the late 1920s to 1952, Oakland Chinatown was my family’s turf. Their generosity to the police had paid off; the carefully orchestrated police raids didn’t harm their businesses. But Chinatown gambling – and my family’s fortunes – changed forever with the passage of the Revenue Act of 1951.

Anti-crime laws had been ineffective in breaking up organized crime syndicates, so Congress turned to a back door solution – following the money. Syndicates often funneled money from illegal gambling to fund their other activities, so the Revenue Act of 1951 aimed to starve them. Under the Revenue Act, gambling businesses would be forced to register, pay an occupational tax of $50 a year, and pay a ten percent tax on all wagers. The tax on wagers, not profits, was clearly punitive. The cost alone would put some out of business. For others, registration would shine an unwanted spotlight on their activities.

The law struck fear in the Chinese communities, especially after 1952, when the federal government successfully prosecuted Chin Bok Hing, the biggest Chinese gambler on the West Coast. Like Al Capone, he was prosecuted for tax evasion. Big money was on the line; for calendar year 1945 alone, Chin was accused of evading $133,967 in income taxes. He was convicted, lost on appeal, and in 1953 fled to Hong Kong to avoid a ten-year prison sentence.

I imagine my grandfather Yeh-Yeh watching from the courtroom gallery. For over twenty years, he and Chin Bok Hing had been friendly rivals. Now his friend had gone bust. Was imprisonment – or exile – a risk he was willing to take? He had an American-born wife and three American-born sons. Four American-born grandchildren, with more on the way.

Mun Jung folded. So did many other gambling houses.

The bagmen were out of work.


For a winning Bok Gop Biu ticket, the big payout was 50,000-to-one. Fifty-thousand dollars in 1945 would equate to about $700,000 in today’s dollars. The take was substantial, and in those days, may have been enough to live on for a lifetime.

But that wasn’t the answer I was looking for. From a practical standpoint, for an individual gambler, was it worth the gamble? And had that calculus changed over the years?

Back in the late 1800s, Chinatowns across America teemed with itinerant bachelors from Canton who bunked in drafty boardinghouse rooms and toiled in the dirtiest jobs to send money home to their families. Gambling houses offered a few hours’ diversion with the lure of a big payout. For these men, the escape from drudgery may have held its own intangible reward – a vague but constant whisper of hope.

But by 1940, hadn’t gamblers learned their lesson? While betting a few dollars each day on Bok Gop Biu wouldn’t break anyone, some found, too late, that pigeon tickets could be the entry drug to a gambling addiction. Too many men bet their last gold tooth on chance.

Was it a good bet to bet on the lottery? What were the odds of any lucky someone winning big?

Back home in Seattle a few weeks later, I sought out my local expert, my then 25-year-old son Alex. During his high school years, despite my frequent and dire warnings about the gambling addiction that runs on both sides of our family, he started playing Texas Hold ’Em with his friends. Because he swore that he was not playing poker online, only with friends I knew from his stints in Math Olympiad and baseball, and because I was a single mom who couldn’t control every aspect of his life, I let him. Soon there was a $10 entry tournament every weekend. He devoured books on poker strategy. Did he win or lose? He never said. I sent him away to college and held my breath. Four years later he emerged with a degree in quantitative economics and statistics. After all that training in game theory and probability, it’s not particularly surprising, but to my relief he’d lost his verve for gambling.

After a dinner of bok chit gai, his favorite steamed chicken with ginger and onion sauce, Alex walked over to his briefcase and removed a pencil and calculator. The waning Seattle sunlight caught his reddish hair, and I marveled at his six-foot-two-inch height, his sturdy frame. Gone was Alex’s teenage rebellion, his “you’re not the boss of me” attitude. In his silhouetted face, in the curve of his cheekbones, I saw the image of my paternal grandfather Yeh-Yeh. He and my father would be proud, I thought, of my son who, by training and temperament, knew how to take calculated risks.

Unlike my grandfather Goong-Goong, who, my aunt later confided, once lost half-a-million dollars he didn’t have.

Alex sat back down at the table and moved his plate aside. “Hey, thanks for dinner, Mom. So, what’s that again? Eighty balls in the cage and the House picks twenty?” Alex grabbed a section of the newspaper and scribbled in the margin.

“Yes, and for each ticket, you mark ten spots. What are the odds of picking ten of the twenty possible winners to hit the big jackpot? And with $50,000 payout, is it a good deal?” I leaned over his shoulder to watch.

His voice dropped to a murmur. “Hmm, let’s see. Eighty pick ten, twenty pick ten.” Quiet taps on his calculator. Then a loud chortle, “Oh, no way!”


He looked up at me, incredulous. “Odds to win are one in 8.9 million. That’s miniscule. To make a bet worthwhile, the payout should be close to that.”

I squinted at his calculations. “Eight million? Then how did they get to the $50,000 payoff?”

Alex laughed. “Not by logic, obviously. They probably thought 50,000 sounded like a big enough number. Look, I had to use a statistical calculator to figure it out. Can abacuses count that high?”

It was even worse than it looked. As a practical matter, Alex explained, even if a gambler had a million dollars to gamble with and played a dollar every day, they might win some of the lower payouts now and then. Playing ten dollars every day, they’d just lose money faster. But with a million shots at something that was statistically destined to happen once in 8.9 million games, they’d likely never see a $50,000 jackpot. Even if they beat the overwhelming odds and won the jackpot once – or, unbelievably, twice – they’d be spending a million dollars to win back at most a hundred thousand.

My bursting pride in Alex and his expertise was spoiled by latent feelings of guilt. Why was the deck so stacked? Did some gamblers lose everything? Was it our fault? Theirs? No one forced them to gamble, but no one could stop them either. Gambling’s a ruinous addiction. Those poor gamblers couldn’t calculate the odds. Abacuses can count that high, but common working-class Chinese couldn’t.

“So, it’s a bad deal then.” I felt the silent weight of my family, their struggle to get a toehold into America. Their compromised morality, their daily risks of imprisonment. Their secrecy. Their bodyguards. In a hostile land, at a time when no one would hire a Chinaman, they made a choice. All so my sons and I could emerge from the shadows and live a comfortable life.

“A really bad deal. No way you should play!” Alex laughed heartily, unashamedly. “Not unless you’re the House.”


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