Words & photos by Lillian Tong
“Cherki,” exclaimed Aunty Ooi Lean. Obviously pleased with herself for winning a hand in the card game, Aunty Ooi Lean collects her winnings from grumbling friends seated around the square table. Such is the life of leisurely Bibiks who idle the afternoon away by playing Cherki, gossiping and taunting each other while chewing on betel nut and sireh leaves. Hardly can you miss the tell-tale signs of red stains by the sides of their lips after chewing.
I often crept up to my grandaunt, whom I refer to as Ee Poh, and peered from behind her just to get a glimpse of her card spread. Ee Poh found that annoying and shooed me away like a fly, much to the amusement of her card-addicted friends.
As each round of the card game ends, sounds of clickety-clacks would fill the room as the women exchanged colourful chips that had an equivalent to real money. These clickety chips are then swept into a little drawer, designed to keep these chips until the next winner shouts out “Cherki!” Sometimes, Ee Poh becomes grouchy when she loses too many times in a row.
Ee Poh had an awful habit – a rolled up cigar drooping out of the corner of her mouth. Yes, a cigar! While gambling and smoking is frowned upon as an unbecoming behaviour for a Nyonya, Ee Poh somehow seemed licensed to indulge in these two vices without fuss from anyone. Many a times, the ash from her cigar will drop on her tae snah, a high-collared, long sleeved Nyonya blouse with large pockets at the front.
I watched these Nyonya aunties arrange the narrow cards in a fan. A deck of cards is made up of 30 patterns, repeated twice. The cards, all black and white have values from 1 to 9. There are two suits – the coins and strings, along with some special cards which give more points to the player like the White Flower, Red Flower and Old Thousand.
Every now and then, the Bibiks will be hauled up by the police for gambling. Some Bibiks even pawn off their belongings to pay off their gambling debts.
Of course, since Nyonyas are generally well-to-do with a reputation to uphold, most manage to hush stories of Bibiks going behind bars.
These Bibiks, if caught, usually wail and cry, promising and pledging to cut off both hands if they ever returned to gambling.
But they almost always do.
Barely a week later, these unremorseful Bibiks are back at their little secret den and exclamations of “Cherki!” can be heard all over again.