Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
The abominable Whe-Whe is in full operation for many weeks in the Chinese quarter (Upper French Street) of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad.
Whe-whe, we-we, whay-whay, whey whey (n) – A gambling game of Chinese origin, in which the organizer or Banker chooses one number or Mark from a set of numbers and seals it in an envelope. Players then bet on what number it is, traditionally according to dreams experienced by the player.
- Banker: The person who runs the whe-whe game by selecting the winning Mark and paying those who bet on the winning Mark.
- Mark: One of thirty-six (36) numbers that a Banker can choose.
The Marks are no longer in their original Chinese form and have been “creolized” over the years. Acquiring Marks like Jamette (#16: Low-Class Man or Woman), Crapaud (#13 Frog), Corbeau (#11: Vulture). It has retained one Chinese word, albeit corrupted, ‘Tie Pin’, correctly T’ai P’ing (#12: Heavenly Kingdom).
|12||Tie Pin (King)||30||House Cat|
Chinese Immigration to Trinidad
This first endeavour at Chinese immigration was an exercise intended to set up a settlement of sharecropper farmers and labourers. This undertaking aspired to populate the newly acquired British colony (Trinidad), and more importantly, find a new labour source to supplant the African vassals who would no longer be accessible once slavery and the slave trade were abolished. It was assumed that the Chinese immigrants could work on the sugar plantations.
- The first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in Trinidad on 12th October 1806 on the ship Fortitude. Of the 200 passengers who set sail, 192 arrived. They came, not from mainland China, but from Macao, Penang and Canton.
- The second wave of Chinese immigration took place after the abolition of slavery. Most of the immigrants came from the southern Guangdong province: an area comprising Macao, Hong Kong and Canton. The immigrants arrived in Trinidad as indentured labourers between 1853 and 1866.
- The third wave of Chinese migration began after 1911 and was a direct result of the Chinese revolution. Between the 1920s and 1940s immigration increased significantly. These new immigrants comprised families and friends of earlier migrants. They did not work on the estates but came as merchants, peddlers, traders and shopkeepers.
- The fourth wave continues on a small scale up to today. Migration ceased completely during the period of the Chinese Revolution. However, during the late 1970s when China started opening up to the outside world, migration resumed once more.
Whe-Whe Historical Context
Whe-whe is the Trinidad version of an Old Chinese game of Chinapoo. The game consists of thirty-six numbers, called marks which represent man and animal life. The game is played between two to three times a day. The Banker selects his Mark from the thirty-six, and it cannot be one already played that day or the previous day, nor can it be a “spirit number” to the one played. The Banker writes his chosen mark on a slip of paper, which he puts in an agreed place. The Bankers patrol the district and collect bets.
Dreams, signs and omens govern the bets. Each Marker writes his bets down on a slip of paper thus: “2 * 6”, which means that the number 2 (“Old Lady”) is bought for $6. He hands a receipt to the Punter with his private identification sign on the back. At the appointed time and place, all the Markers gather around the Banker and his assistant. They hand in their lists and the money collected, then the Banker invites one of them to expose the Mark chosen for that play. This is declared, the lists checked, and the winning number paid. The Markers collect their winnings and return to pay off the punters and collect fresh marks for the following play.
Bush whe-whe is still illegal in Trinidad, and Dr Roy Dereck Mc Cree, a sociologist and Senior Fellow at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies, The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, states in his article “The Chinese game of Whe Whe in Trinidad: From criminalization to criminalization” that:
Whe-whe was considered illegal by the elite in Trinidad and was played primarily by the lower classes on the island. Chinese immigrants used profits from the game to support the distressed and pay for the indigent’s burial within the community. As a result, it became necessary for the Trinidad government to introduce Ordinance 5 of 1888 to deal specifically with the game of whe-whe. The game was considered an intolerable nuisance that had led to much demoralization among servants and the labouring classes.
Whe-whe may be known by the name of Drop Pan or Peaka Pow in other Caribbean Islands.
Lastly, games like whe-whe in which the participators use their interpretations of dreams to make their wages flouted the scientific rationality that nineteenth-century Victorians revered and buttressed the lower classes’ superstitious belief. Today a version of whe-whe called Play Whe the Trinidad and Tobago government administer.
Various words and phrases from Trinidad & Tobago can be traced back to English, French, African, Hindi, and Spanish origins. For instance, growing up in Trinidad and Tobago is fascinating because the slangs can change over time. I have lived in the United States for 20+ years now, and every time I travel back to Trinidad and Tobago, I have to reacquaint myself with the words and phrases that have emerged.
Trini folklore such as Papa Bois is an oral tradition meant to pass on the next generation’s stories. Other Trini phrases in the vernacular are Ganga Channa, Bad John, Goat-Mouth, Quito-Quito and Under Bamboo.
Click here now for other Trini expressions and leave us a comment below of phrases you have heard.