Chee Fah gambling recreation part of Broome’s pearling historical past

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If you’re ever in Broome, Western Australia, make sure to pay special attention to where you’re sitting.

You could be resting your back on a bench carved with a piece of Broome’s history: a riddle from the old gambling game Chee Fah.

Also know as Chiffa and Cheefah, it was a popular game of riddles played by pearlers in Broome.

It uses no pieces, no boards and no dice … only logic and creativity, two traits that usually clash but are needed to figure out the answer to a confounding riddle.

During the dangerous cyclone season known as “lay up”, pearling boats called luggers were tied up for maintenance and to avoid damage.

With little work out there, pearling crews had plenty of time to spend with their families and prepare for the next season.

“These were the days before TV so you could either play Mah Jong or have a bit of a flutter with the Chee Fah,” said Broome resident Doug Fong.

Doug Fong remembers being his uncle George’s banker during the Chee Fah games.(Supplied: Doug Fong)

Mr Fong was only 14 years old when he started helping his uncle George Ham Cheong run the Chinese local lottery in the 1950s.

The townsfolk gave his uncle the nickname George: the Baldheaded Tailor, alluding to his former occupation. He was also one of two local Chee Fah Masters.

The banker of Chinatown

Chee Fah used combinations of words and numbers that people could place bets on.(Facebook: Chinatown Broome)

As his uncle was the riddle master, the young Mr Fong was given an integral role.

“I never played the game, but I was the banker,” Mr Fong said.

“My uncle would put all the shillings in a Sunshine powder-milk tin, then I would cart all these tins across to the bank using my bike.”

It was a gambling game which Mr Fong described as “a cross between lotto and the garden variety of gambling”.

Uncle George would choose a winning number and create an obscure clue like those you can find on the benches of Chinatown today.

Winners drawn twice a day

Chee Fah was run twice a day for six days of the week.

Mr Fong recalls his uncle hired four retired salesmen to wander around Chinatown boarding houses, taking bets before the next draw.

Each bet would cost two shillings, the equivalent of $3.60 in today’s money.

“My uncle George would draw around midday and then again draw another at six or seven at night,” Mr Fong said.

“But he wasn’t a charity, so he’d try to make the riddle as difficult as possible.

“If you were a winner, you were laughing,” Mr Fong said.

The aim of the game was to guess the winning word from a difficult clue.

A clue could be something as general as “in a breeze or a storm”. The answers could be thunder, kite or flag.

The better you were at guessing the answer to the obscure riddle, the more money you’d stand to win.

Chee Fah’s origins

It’s hard to find out where the game originated. Some say it came from the Hong Kong area, others say from Beijing.

Mr Fong said it came on Blue Funnel liners that travelled through Singapore to Broome.

A street in Chinatown with benches. When walking down Broome’s Chinatown streets, don’t forget to look at the riddles on the benches.(ABC Kimberley: Hinako Shiraishi)

But when Mr Fong’s uncle died, the game’s number was up.

“After my uncle George passed on, I think that was the end of Chee Fah,” Mr Fong said.

The benches and lantern riddles in Broome’s Chinatown were designed and placed in the town a couple of years ago.

But most of the locals do not know the significance of the riddles, or even realise there are riddles written on the chairs at all.

Now, it seems Chee Fah lives on through the lantern and bench inscriptions in Broome, and in the fading memories of those who played the game.