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Playing cards have been with us since the 14th century, when they first entered popular culture. Over the centuries packs of cards, in all shapes and sizes, have been used for games, gambling, education, conjuring, advertising, fortune telling, political messages or the portrayal of national or ethnic identity. All over the world, whatever language is spoken, their significance is universal. Their popularity is also due to the imaginative artwork and graphic design which is sometimes overlooked, and the “then & now” of how things have changed.

Playing Cards in Singapore

Playing Cards in Singapore, one of the Four Asian Tigers.

Singapore had been a part of various local empires since it was first inhabited in the second century AD. It hosted a trading post of the East India Company in 1819 with permission from the Sultanate of Johor. The British obtained sovereignty over the island in 1824 and Singapore became one of the British Straits Settlements in 1826. Occupied by the Japanese in World War II, Singapore declared independence, uniting with other former British territories to form Malaysia in 1963, although it was separated from Malaysia two years later. Since then it has had a massive increase in wealth, and is one of the Four Asian Tigers.

Above: street exhibition in Singapore of extra-large playing-cards depicting local tourist destinations. Photograph by Adam Wintle.

Singapore is a multi-racial city. Various Chinese linguistic groups form 75.2% of Singapore's residents, Malays 13.6%, Indians 8.8%, while Eurasians, Arabs and other groups form 2.4%. This is reflected in the Singapore Souvenir playing cards shown below, which features colour photographs of mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples, hotels, museums, parks and gardens, formula 1 racing, chinatown, etc.

‘Double Elephant’ Brand “Four Colour Cards”

Double Elephant brand Four Colour cards

These cards are called "四色牌" in chinese, a term that literally translates as "four colour cards". These cards are relatively common in the country, and are used to play a rummy-like game. The deck has 112 cards, namely seven ranks in four colours, each card having four copies of itself. The cards pictured here are manufactured by the "double elephant" brand in Hong Kong, and are of slightly higher quality than the more common "double dragon" brand, although more expensive. This deck is the most common variety, although there exist other, rarer varieties, like ones with an extra five cards (I am informed that these are jokers), and a curious incarnation which goes under the name of 十五湖牌 (fifteen lake cards) which are the cards engraved on mahjong tiles,   see more →

SEE ALSO:   Hokkien Four Colour Cards     :::     Mahjongg Cards     :::     Minnie Patience Cards     :::     Hee Trading Co.     :::     Chinese Fortune Telling Cards

“Old Maid”

Old Maid game by Hee Trading, Malaysia, 1984

Above: “Old Maid” children's card game from a range of games manufactured by Hee Trading Co., Malaysia, 1984. These cards have been used in Singapore for about 50 years and have become naturalised there. Images kindly supplied by Anthony Lee.

“Singapore Airlines”

deck of cards given to passengers by Singapore Airlines

Above: deck of cards given to passengers by Singapore Airlines. The pattern is clearly a non-standard one, but note some hints of the traditional english pattern shining through: the King of Hearts still is depicted with the sword behind his head. The deck is of 56 cards: 52 cards with 4 identical jokers. Images kindly supplied by Anthony Lee.

Souvenir of Singapore Airlines

Above: souvenir of Singapore Airlines, 52 cards + 4 jokers in box (click to zoom). Images courtesy Matt Probert.

“Singapore Souvenir” Playing Cards

Above: Singapore souvenir playing cards, 52 cards + 2 jokers in special tin, published by Intersection & Union, © I & U.

Above: Souvenir of Singapore playing cards featuring the Merlion on the jokers and reverse. Unknown manufacturer. Images courtesy Matt Probert.

Minnie patience cards, Singapore

Right: box from Minnie patience-sized playing cards from Singapore, manufactured in China   see more →