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Gambling and Globalization in Old Saigon: A Brief History of Số Đề in Vietnam

Since Vietnam started opening up its economy decades ago, the country has been developing at an impressive rate thanks to the effects of globalization, foreign investment and a constant exchange of cultural values with the outside world. However, as much as these forces have helped to bolster Vietnam’s wealth, many are also wary of their impact on local culture.


An illustration from André Demaison's 1935 novel about colonial Vietnam, Le Jeu des 36 Bêtes, which features the popular lottery game “36 Animals.”

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck warned in What is Globalization? to take heed of this new “global age – and above all…the new power game to which everyone is to a greater degree or lesser degree subjected.” The Starbucks and Lotterias on Saigon's streets could be taken as evidence that we are hopelessly subject to this new power game. Yet if we look to an actual game and the gambling culture of Saigon, we can see that globalization is not something radically new: it's been a part of life in this city for centuries.

In today's Saigon, số đề, or “playing the numbers," is a part of local culture, and to the casual observer it may seem distinctly Vietnamese. Số đề is an unofficial yet popular form of gambling. Each day, bettors wager with a local bookmaker on the final two digits (00-99) of the official state lottery results, which are announced at 4:30pm. Each number is commonly associated with an animal, deity, or fictional character. Bettors choose their favorite animal or character based on life circumstances, a recent dream, or simply the weather. The game is so ubiquitous that it has found its way into several other facets of local culture, including films like Tran Dung Thanh Huy's short, 16:30, about a group of young boys who sell flyers with the day’s số đề results.

A still from the film 16:30. This angry bettor did not wager on the day's winning number, 61, which is represented by Thuy Kieu, the character forced into prostitution in Nguyen Du’s literary masterpiece, Truyen Kieu, or The Tale of Kieu.

More than two centuries ago, the predecessor to số đề, a Qing dynasty (1664-1912) lottery game known as huahui (花会), was imported from China and soon dominated old Saigon's gambling culture. When Chinese migrants came to Vietnam in increasing numbers during the early 1800s, they brought huahui with them.

Over time, a local adaptation of the game emerged, known as De 36 Con, or “36 Animals”. As French colonial officials arrived in Vietnam, they noticed that 36 Animalsplayed a significant role in the daily lives of everyone from peasants to members of the elite. In 1891, Edmond Courtoisremarked in his study Contemporary French Tonkin: “Mandarins, scholars, businessmen, and beggars, everybody plays 36 Animals.”

Thirty-six Animals is based upon 36 mythological Chinese figures and their previous incarnations as animals. For example, the character Yu Li was associated with an elephant, the animal he had been in a past life. The other 35 characters ranged from King Thai Peng (26, a dragon) to the pork-butcher Chit Taik (14, a dog). There are conflicting sources on whether these were real people, but a complete list of characters and their corresponding animals can be found here.

Sneyd Kynnersley, a member of the Royal Asiatic Society, collected these images of huahui characters in Singapore during the 1880s.

Twice a day, a gaming house would select one of these animals at random. Bettors tried to guess the chosen animal. “Runners” employed by the gaming house would traverse the streets taking bets that offered a thirty-fold return. In some versions, the gaming house also issued a clue or cryptic riddle that supposedly hinted at the chosen animal. Later that day, runners returned to announce the winning animal to the delight – or, more often, the dismay – of the betting public.

These riddles were intentionally vague. Vietnamese writer Vo Ky Dien captured the perils of 36 Animals in his short story, The Old Man Who Believed Only What He Saw. In Dien’s tale, an old man struggles to decipher a Chinese gaming house's riddle: “A clear-sighted man must both gaze ahead and look back.” To “look back” is to “turn around,” the old man concludes, and “turn around,” or quay lại, also means “to turn a spit” over a fire.

“You know how our guests from China love roast pork,” he shouts. “I'm telling you it's the pig!” The old man bets on the pig (7), only to learn that the winner was the duck (27).

Bettors also relied on interpretations of their dreams to select one of the 36 animals. For example the gambler who dreamed of a goat would bet on its corresponding number (35). Gaming houses and soothsayers produced charts that associated the 36 animals with the different parts of the human body. Thus a dream involving one's ears would indicate Thai Peng (26), the neck would point to a bet on Jit San (28, a rooster), and so on.

Used in dream interpretations, this diagram shows the relation of the 36 animals to different parts of the body.

Some bettors attempted divination. Upon making an offering to Buddha or a spirit, the player would ask for assistance and place a numeric grid before their shrine. By seeing upon which numbers they could balance a chicken egg, players hoped to divine a winning combination. Even today, some số đề players rely on the interpretation of dreams, prayers and the chicken egg method to divine winning numbers.

Initially, under French colonialism, the playing of 36 Animals was banned, but it soon made a comeback due to its lucrative nature. To support the growing colonial administration financially, Resident Superior Paul Bert turned 36 Animals into a revenue farm, awarding exclusive contracts to Chinese businesses to hold the lottery. In return, the colonial state received a set percentage of profits from 36 Animals, as well as a licensing fee. During the first year of the contracts, the French colonial state raised more than 690,000 francs in Tonkin alone.

Annam, Celebration of Tet, playing 36 Animals.

In post-World War II Saigon, 36 Animals remained the most popular game at the famous Grand Monde and Cloche d'Or casinos. But because of its popularity among lower classes, the game drew frequent critiques from social reformers. Suicides, bankruptcies, hunger and the weakening of the familial unit were all traced back to 36 Animals.

Colonial officials responded that these social ills were exaggerated. They reasoned that people fell on hard times for other reasons, such as a bad investments, and saved face by blaming 36 Animals. Eventually, social reformers under Bao Dai's administration (1949-1955) succeeded in banning the game. However, Chinese gaming houses skirted the law with a new game: 40 Animals. Exactly the same, this game included four new deities, such as Ong Tao, the Kitchen God; and the main character in Nguyen Du’s Tale of Kieu, Thuy Kieu. This version of số đề still remains largely unchanged to this day.

A cartoon published in New Saigon in 1950 criticized the game's social impact. (L-R): 1: “When dreaming up the winning animal”; 2: “Pawning items for money to bet”; 3: “Happy playing 36 Animals”; 4: “When the money is gone.”

As authorities in Vietnam cracked down on illegal gambling and instituted official state lotteries, elements of 40 Animals were transformed into số đề. But unlike it predecessor, số đề relies on the last two digits of the state lottery, a number from 1 to 99. The characters from 40 Animals are repeated every forty numbers. For example, the snail was represented by 2 in 40 Animals. In số đề it remains 2, but also 42 and 82. Meanwhile the shrimp, which was 31, is now also 71.

The role of dreams, divination and the character associations have remained much the same over more than a century, leaving a mark on the Vietnamese language. For example, the Tale of Kieu character Thuy Kieu represents both 21 and 61 in số đề. Because she was famously forced into prostitution, those numbers became synonymous with prostitution. And today, to call someone có máu dê, or “goat-blooded," is to call them perverted. Since 35 has long represented the goat in these games, to say someone is máu ba lăm (35-blooded) also means they are handsy or lascivious.

During the 1800s and 1900s, 36 Animals spread across Southeast Asia and even into the Americas and Caribbean. Today, the official state lottery of Jamaica is a modified version of 36 Animals called Cash Pot. However, instead of Thuy Kieu and Ong Tao, most of the 36 characters in Cash Pot are unique to Jamaica, including strong man (6), Chinese man (17), bad girl (21), white woman (22), old lady (36), preacher (29) and big house (33). These characters are depicted in the Jamaican government's official and highly amusing Cash Pot dictionary advertisements.

In its global reach, the 36 Animals of old Saigon's gambling culture were the agents of an older era of globalization. Indeed, globalization has been an integral part of the process that gave rise to Saigon and Vietnam's culture in the past and today.

Brett Reilly is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation examines Vietnamese non-communists from 1945-1955, with a focus on the Bao Dai-led State of Vietnam.

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