On the island of Flores, a Singaporean lottery based on the Chinese zodiac is a popular pastime
In 2014, I spent several weeks in a relatively isolated beach-side village on central Flores’ sparsely populated north shore, inhabited mostly by agriculturalists. As evenings fell and the heat lingered between the tall kapok trees, I often heard shouts being exchanged between people sitting inside their wooden houses, and people still out on the dusty road. ‘Jewh!?’ ‘Allééh! Pig, 7258!’
Although cryptic to an outsider, these shouts were clear messages about winning and losing: they concerned the outcome of the draw of a popular lottery based on the shio, or Chinese zodiac. They were part of a daily ‘shio-rhythm’: a constant buzz of talking and musing about the lottery, pushing people into buying a coupon, culminating in the moment the daily result is announced by word of mouth, turning talk into cheers of victory for some, and dreams into curses for most.
The reasons why relatively poor people enter lotteries, or gamble in general, are often framed in economic terms. Here, I want to place ‘the shio’ in a different light. Though all coupon-buyers probably dream of ‘winning big’, I want to explore the lottery’s appeal beyond the chance it offers for cashing a big prize, and look at it as a social affair.
How it works
In its basics, the shio lottery is simple: when buying a coupon, people pick four numbers between 0 and 9, and a sign from the Chinese zodiac. Each day, except on Sundays, a four-digit number and a sign are drawn. Correctly guessing the sign, or two of the numbers, gives an approximately fivefold return on one’s bet – exact returns are calculated on a daily basis. Returns increase as more numbers are correctly guessed, the ultimate combination having the exact same order as the draw, including the sign.
Bets start at modest levels: coupons can be bought for as little as Rp.2000 (about A$0.20), and can be bought within the village from a representative of the lottery. Almost every village has such a representative, who is connected to lottery representatives in district capitals, the national representatives in Surabaya and, ultimately, to Singapore, where the draw takes place. These links are rather shady as the lottery is illegal in Indonesia. Few people know where the money that the village representative collects goes to, or, in the unlikely event of a high winning bet, where the money comes from. How the draw is organised and how exactly information is passed down from Singapore to Flores’ small villages, is also largely unknown.
What is clear is that six days a week village representatives receive the results of the draw through their smart phones. At the same time, due to the shio’s very nature as a lottery, money leaves the village, finding its way to district capitals, Surabaya and Singapore. There are thus intricate connections between anonymous places, like Singapore, and small villages in Flores. On the surface, these connections seem to consist of unequal flows of information and money only. However, these connections also establish a popular pastime, and can be thought of as shaping social life.
Playing the lottery
The ‘shio’ is popular in day-to-day conversations in rural Flores. Young and old, male and female, day and night, the lottery features in many discussions. People rarely mention their losses, but often brag about their wins – particularly men – and their skills in predicting the outcomes of the lottery. These predictions are often based on previous winning numbers.
One late afternoon I was doing some shopping in a small roadside store, when a young woman entered. The owner of the store and two male customers and I had already heard her shouting the day’s lottery result to her neighbours and eagerly asked her for confirmation. It was disappointing news: the men had all bought different combinations that day. With a sigh, the owner of the kiosk retrieved a small notebook. It was crumpled and stained: in it, he had noted long lists of past lottery outcomes, showing evidence of great dedication. He had circled various numbers with red ink to distinguish numerical patterns. He entered the latest result, showed his book to us and lamented ‘What is wrong with these numbers!’ Apparently, his predictions had not come true. The others took a long look at the numbers, and engaged in a fierce discussion. Patiently, the woman pointed out that the red circles had been put in the wrong places. According to her, one was better off focusing on signs instead of numbers, as it was easier to detect whether some signs had been absent from previous draws. It was not much later that they agreed that the day after ‘Dragon’ was certainly going to be the winning sign, as it had not been drawn for ages.
Many methods are used to forecast the outcome of a draw: some people try to discern numerical patterns while others see suspiciously absent signs as the key to predicting future draws. Another method involves interpreting omens that people witness, and finding in them clues for the lottery. People in Flores have long spoken of omens, but the shio lottery provides a foreign, relatively novel lens for exploring the meaning of portentous sightings.
A site offers a chart on how to interpret signs and portentous sightings into lottery numbers. (DataTogel.Net)
For example, if one spots a monkey, or a pig behaving curiously, these are generally considered to be signs that that particular animal is going to be drawn. Moreover, in the lottery all numbers between 0 and 99 are ascribed to one of the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac. So if, as one man in the village had, one sees a dog carrying a dead snake in its mouth, one can pick numbers belonging to ‘Dog’ (for example, 10) and ‘Snake’ (for example, 03), which combined is one’s number selection for that day (thus, 1, 0, 0 and 3).
However, things are slightly more complicated: besides belonging to a sign, numbers have ascribed meanings themselves too. These meanings are depicted on charts, of which various versions circulate. On these charts, numbers are paired with words. For example, on one such chart, number 10 is paired with ‘dirty’, while 03 is ascribed ‘genie’. The daily discussions often concern whether these meanings correspond with the actual omen. With regards to the dog carrying a snake, one could point out that the ascribed meaning of number 94, also belonging to ‘Dog’, is ‘violent’, and be therefore perhaps more appropriate than the number 10, associated with ‘dirty’. The greatest fun for most participants in such discussions is to see if the middle numbers or the sum of the numbers also have meanings related to the omen.
Picking the numbers of the day is not done lightly, and involves skill in distinguishing patterns and relating them to interpretations of specific omens. There are countless possibilities, triggering a constant buzz around the lottery draw.
Dreams are similarly interpreted through these charts, as they are considered to contain messages about the lottery from the ancestors. When over time one’s dreams are taken as trustworthy predictors of the draw, one is considered to possess the ‘third eye’, an inherent talent for discerning messages from the afterlife to the living. Being right about the upcoming numbers thus suggests someone is able to ‘see’ this world of ancestors, and to win in the lottery.
Based on calculations, interpretations and their third eye, many people make regular small bets. Some people do this (almost) daily and could be considered gambling addicts. A few refrain from making any bets at all – although this does not stop them from participating in the discussions surrounding the lottery. In general, people try their shio-luck once or twice a week. Even young children sometimes make small bets, proudly telling their parents which combination they choose, and why. Any wins the children made, they spend on sweets. Women tend to use the gains for household necessities or clothes for themselves and their children. Men often share their wins in the form of alcohol and cigarettes with friends and family. Often, wins are small; anything that exceeds Rp.100,000 is considered large, and reason enough for neighbours and family to drop by and ask for small gifts.
The lottery as pastime
Sharing one’s lottery wins resembles a romantic notion of economic redistribution within communities. However, we should note that in the end the lottery results in a net loss of money for villagers, which could be problematic for relatively poor rural communities. Nevertheless, people in Flores continue to have a lottery love affair, mainly because of its social nature.
The shio-lottery exists due to daily connections between the metropolis and rural Flores. Through these connections, images of the Chinese zodiac have become mediums for interpreting dreams and omens as predictors of the lottery results. Interpretations like these are not a new phenomenon, but the lottery does provide novel ways of understanding one’s experience, while simultaneously providing a novel arena for discussing these experiences.
Of course, the shio offers its players the chance to win big. But it is also about having fun, testing out one’s hypothesis against another’s, discovering and bragging about one’s special talent for making predictions, and collectively anticipating the daily results. This means that, due to its social nature, one does not need to bet any money to actually play the shio.
Though there seems to be a tension between the desire to predict and the inevitable unpredictability of the lottery, it does not lead to a diminished interest in the lottery. The lottery is a popular pastime, instigating a daily buzz of new rounds of discussions. This became, rather painfully, clear to me when I returned to the store where I had witnessed the discussion leading to the ‘Dragon’ prediction. I had followed the advice, and bought an appropriate number. But, I had been disappointed: the following day the sign was ‘Pig’ again. The store owner laughed at me, simply remarking ‘well... that is the lottery’, and took another long look in his notebook.
Thijs Schut (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam.
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