Betting in Hong Kong

Until Britain claimed the island from China under the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, Hong Kong was just a collection of fishing villages. In 1860, the Kowloon Peninsula became part of the colony, and in 1898, the so-called New Territories, comprising the area north of Kowloon to the Shenzhen River along with 235 outlying islands, were added by Great Britain under a 99-year lease.

So it was until 1997 that British law prevailed in Hong Kong. In all those years, the only legally recognised form of gambling was wagering on horse races. That took place under the auspices of the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC), originally founded in 1884 on the site of a malarial swamp that had been drained in 1841 to create a racecourse known as Happy Valley.

Except for a few years during World War II, the track at Happy Valley has witnessed non-stop action. Revenues generated by the Club were instrumental in assisting in post-War rebuilding and, beginning in 1955, the Club focused on devoting its entire annual surplus to charity and community projects. The sport’s popularity grew and grew.

In 1971, the HKJC dropped its amateur status and was reformed as professional organisation. Seven years later, a second racecourse was opened at Sha Tin in the New Territories. In the interim, however, incidences of illegal bookmaking increased, which caused the Colonial Government to authorise operation of off-course betting branches. Since then, the Mark Six lottery and regulated football betting have been introduced to combat illegal gambling, too.

Casino-type gaming was never legal in Hong Kong under colonial rule, and those who wished to wager on table games had to take the ferry to nearby Macau. Nevertheless, gambling dens offering traditional Chinese games such as Mahjongg and Sic Bo proliferated throughout the island, peninsula and New Territories.

When the region reverted to the People’s Republic of China in 1997 under the unique principle of “One Country, Two Systems,” most forms of gambling remained illegal. An exception was made for the HKJC’s activities, as was an allowance for the Golden Princess Cruise to operate an on-board casino out of Wanchai.

One other exception has been permission granted to the Hong Kong Poker House in Central Hong Kong to offer card games. Six versions of poker can be played there from 8pm till closing nightly, recognising that poker is a skill game rather than a game of chance.

As for gambling via the Internet, China has followed a very strict line in all of its regions, prohibiting foreign bookmakers from offering online services and banning all forms of casino gaming web sites. Only the Hong Kong Jockey Club is authorised to offer betting on lotteries, horse racing and football over the Internet.

Surprisingly, perhaps, such restrictions have not put much of a crimp in the fabric of betting in Hong Kong. According to one recent study, over 80 percent of all Hong Kong adults gamble once a year or more, typically on the races or at Mahjongg tables, but also online, where some 433 sports betting sites readily accept play from Hong Kong residents.

The greatest difficulty in placing bets online from Hong Kong is finding a way to transfer money. The Chinese government has time and again sought to block popular deposit methods, notably credit cards and local banks. As a response, eWallets have become a common channel for financial transactions, notably NETeller, Moneybookers and Click2Pay, with funds denominated in U.S. Dollars, British Pounds or Euros.