• AHK - Culture

Gambling in Hong Kong – From Illegal to the Largest Tax Payer and Charity in Hong Kong

April 3, 2021

Just an hour ferry ride from Macau, the gambling paradise in China, gambling culture in Hong Kong has taken a very different shape. Its development tells a rich tale of cultural collision and changing administrative philosophy.

(Photo from https://www.onlinecasino.in/gambling-superstitions/chinese-gambling-what-to-do-and-what-not-to-do/)

In the first few decades of the colonization of Hong Kong, illegal gambling was rampant. Failing to contain the situation, the sixth Governor of Hong Kong, Macdonell, decided to legalize it in 1867. The decision was faced with strong opposition from religious leaders back in the UK, leading to a re-criminalization of gambling in 1871, with the exception of Mahjong and “Tin Kau” ( 天九), which were both traditional Chinese games popular among local communities. To everyone’s amusement, Mahjong parlors continued to run as “schools” under the government’s definition! A total of 144 licenses were given out, with around 70 still active today. Nowadays, such venues can still be found in districts like Wanchai and Yau Ma Tei. The entrances are usually fully decorated in gold or silver color with rules listed on the outside. However, we don’t suggest you go in as beginners are not tolerated. 

(Photo from https://images.app.goo.gl/bekhybtCyX4REzEx8)

Such a turn of events showed a renewed understanding the colonial government had about Hong Kong. The government has realized the role of gambling in maintaining community ties. In addition, some taxes collected from gambling had enabled the completion of Tung Wah Hospital, the first public hospital in colonial Hong Kong, in 1870. Attempts were made to capitalize on the stabilizing effect it had on the community, a well as the lucrative tax it might bring. In 1886, the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) was established as the sole agent to manage horse racing. To date, it still generates the largest gambling turnover in the world, making it the largest taxpayer and charitable institution in Hong Kong. In the early days, horseracing was limited to the privileged class, and women were not allowed in the racecourse. In 1891, betting for horse racing started. Since then, the HKJC has expanded its scope to manage both Mark 6 lottery and football gambling as well, marking a diversification of legal gambling means in Hong Kong. To date, the gambling ordinance requires HKJC to tax at least 72% of its gambling income. 

(Photo from https://images.app.goo.gl/wP42H46LwVVksiqE6)

Betting in horse racing and Mark 6 has become a kind of lifestyle for the locals. They would consider betting a way to make a “donation” due to HKJC charitable status. You will see long queues and gathering at the off-course betting branches on race days or the day with a large jackpot. Meanwhile, HKJC retains a connection with the privileged class as membership is by referral only. Owning a horse, which is an expensive hobby, is also seen as a sign of social status. One could say that HKJC is a shadow of the colonial times in Hong Kong. 

In response to its changes over time, the regulation would always require an understanding of local practices, tempered with appropriate concerns about taxation, public welfare, and public temperaments. 

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