Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The most curious casino in the world

The most curious casino in the world

The most curious casino in the world


It is "a monopoly thriving on general misery, a few profiteers benefiting from

the people's savings to the detriment of the public in general... Banditry has recommenced

in Cambodia..., there are troubles in the interior of the country and I don't believe

that it will be a long way from banditry to a rebellion. Nobody works anymore, instead

they steal and gamble."

This harsh statement on the state of things in Cambodia was addressed to the Resident

General of the French protectorate in Phnom Penh by a local merchant in August 1888.

The writer, Mr Ulysse Leriche, was outraged over the phenomenon of gambling which,

in his view, seriously hindered economic progress in Cambodia and made it virtually

impossible to do business in Phnom Penh.

Writing on behalf of a group of Chinese merchants, he complained that business was

nonexistent since the reintroduction of a type of gambling that had previously been

banished, the so-called lottery of the 36 animals.

What was happening in Cambodia, less than two years after a long but unsuccessful

rebellion against the French colonial authorities? Was Cambodia on the verge of fresh


Gambling had been a feature of Cambodian society for a long time. But recently, the

monopoly to organize and exploit gambling and lotteries in the kingdom had been auctioned

off to a Frenchman. This Frenchman used aggressive tactics to encourage the population

to turn their savings into lottery tickets.

For Leriche, the promotion and pursuit of gambling had completely ruined Cambodia,

both economically and morally. People were selling their houses and children. There

was misery and hunger. Robberies, arson and crime in general were surging, and such

a complete breakdown of moral values could be observed. Even some graves were being

reopened to rob the corpses of their jewelry.

In the face of this social catastrophe, the holder of the gambling monopoly was making

a fortune, showing off the luxuries he could afford thanks to others' misery and

throwing extravagant parties for the rich elite of Phnom Penh.

Leriche demanded action from the French authorities against the man who was responsible

for all this, the holder of the gambling monopoly: Octave Vandelet.

Phnom Penh's everyday life at the time was structured around a 24 hour ritual - every

day at noon, a mesmerized audience gathered to watch as an old Chinese man, hidden

behind a curtain and uttering rhymed verses, would secretly choose a pig, a goose,

a snake, a worm or one of the other animals from a group of 36.

The utterances of the old man had the undivided attention of the audience, as he

would tell cryptic parables about the animal he had chosen. Moments later, his words

were circulating around town, discussed by the many gambling addicts as to their

meaning and even printed on little flyers that were handed out freely by the gambling


The booking stalls immediately opened their counters and hoards of Chinese, Cambodian

and Vietnamese inhabitants of Phnom Penh would line up to place their money on the

animal they thought was hidden behind the curtain.

Many gambled according to their recent dreams, as dreams were seen as the most reliable

indicator of what nobody knew for sure. Others believed in the prophecies of quacks

who made a fortune with their perceived clairvoyance and then hurriedly left town

after two or three failed predictions.

Then, Phnom Penh waited for the drum announcing the sale of the last lottery ticket,

and with the beat of this drum the hidden animal would be revealed: a moment of joy

for some, and of utter despair for others who had placed their last savings on the

hope of immediate gain.

The risk of this game lay on both sides: There was no predetermined set of tickets

sold at the counters, and every participant was free to choose any animal with no

limits set on betting. A certain rumor or the presence of a particularly lucid fortune

teller could cause large proportions of the population to bet on a single animal,

instead of scattering their bets evenly on the 36 choices.

Sometimes gambling companies would just barely avoid bankruptcy, when the rumor turned

out to be true and payments to winners far outweighed receipts from the sale of tickets.

But those companies who could sustain temporary losses would eventually make good

business as odds were set at about 93 to 100 against the bettor.

Ulysse Leriche, the letterwriter who perceived this daily theater as a tragedy for

Cambodia, alarmed also the Minister of Colonies in faraway Paris. Newspapers in France

called the capital of Cambodia "the most curious casino in the world",

and worried that Cambodia's economy was slowly collapsing because of the new game.

Eventually, on June 30, 1888, the minister sent a telegram to Saigon: "Crisis

is imminent, suppression of gambling urgent."

The governor in Saigon forwarded the order to Phnom Penh where it took the Resident

of France somewhat by surprise - unlike these outside sources, he was not aware that

there was any crisis to be prevented nor did he consider gambling, or Vandelet's

business policies for that matter, a problem. Confused by the order, he wrote back

to Saigon requesting further instructions and inquiring what all the fuss was about.

In the correspondence which followed, the resident drew a very different picture

of reasons that could have led to the campaign to denounce Phnom Penh as a gambling


It seemed Leriche was an old acquaintance of Vandelet who had never forgiven the

latter for his unwillingness to lend money in a previous business venture. Leriche's

letters should therefore be considered as part of a vendetta intending to slander

Vandelet and destroy his commercial success.

Furthermore, a group of Chinese merchants associated with the Saigon-based tycoon

Wangtai had joined the conspiracy to bring Vandelet down in revenge for loosing against

him earlier in the year during competitive bidding for the gambling monopoly.

In the resident's view, the accusations against Vandelet were all fabrications, made

up primarily by Leriche, "a dubious personality", he writes, "to whom,

out of compassion, I do not wish the destiny that everybody here predicts for him".

Subsequent discussions of the affair show the sharply differing views within the

administration and the public over the controversial issue.

Some agreed with Leriche's view that gambling undermined the moral foundations of

society, causing widespread poverty, personal tragedies, an increase in crime, and

a downward slide in the local commerce.

For others, especially the Chinese community of Phnom Penh, gambling was a constructive

force, the only one that had ever given the rural population of Cambodia enough incentive

to produce surpluses which they then invested into lottery bets.

Impressive figures were quoted in favor of this argument: the amount of produce sold

in Cambodian markets and exports shipped to Cochinchina had doubled during the time

that gambling had been allowed in Cambodia and surplus production plummeted during

the periods when gambling was forbidden.

As to the perceived threat of rebellion, a counterpetition by 241 local Chinese traders

of Phnom Penh found the country "more satisfied and quieter" than ever


To establish the truth from these accusations and counteraccusations, a committee

was formed and staffed with high local functionaries who should inquire into the

issues brought forward by Leriche and the matter of gambling in general.

During their first meeting in September 1888, they called Leriche for testimony and

requested that he reveal his sources and be more specific about his allegations.

The results of the hearing were rather meager: Leriche miserably failed to bolster

his rampage against Vandelet with hard evidence. The committee's final report threw

out all his accusations and in a cover letter to the Governor General, the local

French Resident refuted all moral arguments as well, stating that gambling was neither

more nor less immoral than, for example, the sale of opium which was authorized by

the government and which generated the tax money crucial for the maintenance of the

French Protectorate.

It is possible that there was an entirely different motivation to the governor's

sudden urge to suppress gambling in Cambodia at a time when roulette and other games

flourished in Europe.

Assigning gambling monopolies was still King Norodom's business and the awarding

of the contract to Vandelet would have provided the King the impressive sum of 600,000

francs over 3 years.

At the time the French colonial authorities engaged in a attempt to tighten their

control over the Cambodian court. Any money that the King received on top of the

annual budget given to him by the French since 1884 would add to his independence

and was seen as highly undesirable, despite the allegations by Leriche, that the

King wasted the bulk of this money on his many wives and servants.

Having already taken over customs, taxes and the right to appoint provincial officials,

the French could cut off the last important source of revenue for the Royal Palace

by abolishing gambling in Cambodia.

In retrospect, it seems that issues were linked to the suppression of gambling that

had very little to do with moral arguments. Nevertheless, it was these moral considerations

that formed the first line of defense when the ministry in Paris defended the wisdom

of its orders.

The lottery of the 36 animals was banished in Cambodia on October 15, 1888. Vandelet

embarked on different business ventures. Norodom had no ready alternatives and, stripped

of his last bit of revenue, continued an even more uphill battle against French ambitions

to turn Cambodia into a fully submissive colony.

Of Leriche's fate, we do not know, but it can be assumed that for some time he remained

the most hated man in Phnom Penh.

Information for this article was taken from National Archives of Cambodia, file

#4424. The National Archives is open Monday - Friday, 8.00-11.00 and 2.00-4.30. It

is located behind the National Library alongside the Hotel Royal. All are welcome

to consult its holdings. The re-establishment of the catalog of its holdings is in

progress, a project which is facilitated by the generous support of the Embassies

of Australia, France, and Switzerland.


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