A Horse Race in China.
I believe that China has the most ardent gambling fans of any nation.
Americans like to gamble, but not like the Chinese — to them, it’s a basic, essential part of life, like fine food to the French, or dancing to the Spanish. I suppose it stems from seeing life as a gamble — you have to take your chances, competing for a job when everyone else has exactly the same skills and mindset. And in the industrial zones of China, your life is being gambled away for you, as you attempt to survive the job-site, the drinking water, and the air you breathe.
In Hong Kong, like everywhere in China outside of Macau, every form of gambling is outlawed — with one exception.
The exception is the horse race. There are two racetracks in Hong Kong — both famous, world-class, and impressive.
My friends from Lingnan University decided to meet at the Happy Valley Racecourse, in the center of heavily-developed Hong Kong Island. Happy Valley is home to the biggest single jackpot in the world for any horse racing event – 400,000,000.00 dollars.
Originally, the land was swamp and rice paddies, appropriated by the British back in the 1800’s. The city grew around it, and the track is now surrounded by skyscrapers.
The owner of one building, a particularly enthusiastic fan of racing, built himself a penthouse with a special viewing balcony.
The trip there from the New Territories was an entertaining saga if its own — getting lost repeatedly, while trying various unique modes of transportation, including a 110-year-old tram. Getting home took even longer, and only people familiar with the absolutely indescribable impossibility of keeping any group of Asian college students on track and moving, can understand. (Because enjoying being together in the group is the goal and the reward, rather than actually getting anywhere in particular!)
The racetrack is an amazing sight in its own right: 7 stories of free seating, and 3 more decks for those who want to pay for the privilege of getting VIP seating. The stadium was also very Hong-Kongish in that it was full of food stalls that were randomly placed around the track, and simply full of people everywhere, tens of thousands. I don’t know the seating capacity, but it must have been in the hundred thousand range. In typical Asian fashion, it was crowded, full of animated conversations, clouds of cigarette smoke, and cell phone “Selfies” being taken.
Having finally found the track, getting up to the seventh story to find our friends was a challenge in its own right — the elevators we found took us into the kitchens for some reason, and others were just for use during fires (which didn’t make sense to me, since in America elevators are what you don’t take when there’s a fire). So we took the stairs — also challenging — they were crowded with people, but none of them were actually going up and down. The glitzy decor of the rest of the stadium wasn’t there, and the stairs were full of cigarette butts, old gum, torn-up betting slips, and countless people sitting quite comfortably on the steps smoking cigarettes, despite the signs saying: NO SMOKING. They clearly weren’t bothered by that. The looks they gave us seemed like they were daring us, “Go ahead, tell us to stop.”
When we arrived at the 7th tier, it hit me, that we were having a distinctly Hong Kong experience. Yes, there were about 10,000 reserved VIP seats, but really, as far as your neighbors at this track, all bets were off (pun not intended) — you could sit on the crowded benches literally rubbing elbows with a CEO on one side, and his shoe-shiner on the other. It put everyone on an equal level.
Betting was also interesting, as it was a very complex process. We had three Korean women in our group, who seemed to have mastered it with their system — they placed a bet on every single horse! They were betting in several categories (win, place, show) and despite the initial cost, they won by default every single time, sometimes winning enough that’d they’d break even or even make a bit of money.
The most vivid memory from Happy Valley is something that screams “CHINA” to me. When we got to the final round of races, we all decided to place bets. I had been carefully studying the directory, and placed my bet on a favored horse to win. Everyone else was going to do the same, when a shirtless, mostly toothless old-looking man approached them. (This isn’t an uncommon sight in China, another difference between here and there). This man whispered in the ear of the Chinese-speakers and then stood behind them as they placed their bets. I thought he was just some oddball and then proceeded to watch the race.
Well, apparently he was a wizard. My horse lost by a hair, or a nose, to the horse that was the underdog — who was the one the old mysterious man had told my friends to bet on. He was right. They split the winnings (several thousand HKD) between them and had a great time rubbing it in my face.
They turned to thank the old man, and he had vanished. The time he disappeared was the only time that there was no crowd in our part of the stadium, so it seemed like he honestly vaporized into the night air. I don’t know why, but that disappearing old shirtless man is probably the most distinctive image I have of China, of all of the images I have saved mentally. It just seemed so incredibly Chinese to me, maybe because that does not happen anywhere else!
I didn’t need any time to realize that this was a distinctive experience — it struck me as suddenly as the little old man vanished. As we left, I was disgruntled over my lost bet, and my friends were ecstatic that they won (even though divided up, it came to very little money). We walked out of the stadium through a literal downpour of papers from the betting tables. Showers of papers riding the humid air currents and slowly falling to earth closed the scene.
Of all the things I saw, felt, smelled, ate or heard, during my time in Hong Kong, this day was China.