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Regional Cards: South-Eastern Asia

Published December 10, 2005 Updated June 12, 2024

Indonesia • Malaysia • Singapore • Thailand • Vietnam

Indonesia Malaysia Singapore South East Asia Thailand Vietnam (Việt Nam) Mahjong Ceki Money-Suited Pai Tô Tôm Add to Collection

Indonesia • Malaysia • Singapore

Ceki Cards

Above: Indonesia (green), Malaysia (yellow) and Singapore (red).

This 60-card pattern is traditionally used by Indonesian and Malaysian players of Chinese descent. About one century ago, the gambling game of Ceki (other Western spellings: Cheki or Tjeki), also known as Kowah, was particularly popular among the Babas and Nyonias ethnic groups living in Malacca (Malaysia), but it is still played today by the descendants of such immigrants.

Above: Ceki deck by Guan Huat (Hong Kong), showing "Old Thousand", 9 of Strings, 2 of Myriads, 3 of Strings, 1 of Coins; note the different frame patterns.

This pattern has very strong analogies with the classic Chinese DongGuan cards : there are values from 1 to 9 of the suits of Coins, Strings and Myriads, plus the "Old Thousand", "Red Flower" and "White Flower" cards, and their illustrations are very similar too. Therefore, Ceki cards are a further variety of money-suited cards.

Above: an edition by Pendekar ~ Woo Sung (Indonesia): "Old Thousand", "Red Flower", "White Flower", (bottom row) 7 of Coins, 4 of Strings, 9 of Myriads.

Above: Single Lion brand (Yong Guan Heng, Malaysia): "Old Thousand", "Red Flower", "White Flower", (bottom) 2 of Coins, 3 of Strings, 9 of Myriads.

In Ceki decks each subject is duplicated twice, and there is no Gui (or "devil") card; therefore, the pack contains only 60 cards. But since the game requires two decks (120 cards in total) for being played, a clear analogy with the aforesaid Chinese pattern can be told. Furthermore, the game of Ceki is not very different from Mah Jong, whose cards belong to the money-suited group, as well.

In the Ceki pattern the suit of Myriads has an actual Wan sign (not a Guan), as can be seen on the right in the first card of the bottom row. The faces of the characters from The Water Margin novel appear very stylized, more than in Chinese patterns, almost as if they had become a mere graphic detail to fill the central part of the card, yet they can still be told.

In most editions the backs of Ceki cards are plain yellow. Both Indonesian and Malaysian editions have different proportions from the usual size of Chinese cards: they are almost closer in size to a Western patience pack than to any other money-suited card variety.

Above: table of Ceki frames and numerical values they match.

A peculiar feature of Ceki cards is a thick frame or rim that encloses the central illustration.

There are nine different frame patterns, and all cards with the same value (for instance: the 3 of Coins, the 3 of Strings and the 3 of Myriads) have identical ones, although they belong to different suits.

A similar index system is also found in other money-suited patterns used in China.

Apparently, these frames have the same purpose as indices in Western decks, i.e. they help players to tell at a glance the numerical value of the card. In fact, the only two combinations pursued in the game of Ceki, the couple and the "three of a kind", are both irrespective of suits (a 5 of Coins and a 5 of Myriads form a couple, a 7 of Strings and two 7s of Coins are "three of a kind", and so on); therefore, the numerical value of a card is a much more important detail than its suit.

The four of Strings has an additional horizontal break in the center of the illustration (see the previous picture), while two of the special cards, "Red Flower" and "White Flower", have a frame similar to 1s.

The whole deck is shown in the Ceki page, with detailed instructions for the game.

Four Colour Cards

Above: four colour cards manufactured in Belgium for export to Indonesia: the sample above features a Cannon and a Soldier of each colour.

Above: four-suited cards from Indonesia (General and Horse are shown).

Above: edition by Hua Goi Pte Ltd., Double Dragon Brand (Singapore).

Above: two-suited cards from Malaysia; the only colours are yellow and red (General, Minister and Cannon are shown).

Throughout South-eastern Asia, players of Chinese descent use four colour cards. Some of the local short variety editions, though, have only half the number of cards of the standard Chinese editions, i.e. 56 versus the usual 112 cards of the traditional Si Se Pai.

In fact, in some cases each of their subjects is duplicated not four times, but only twice.

In other cases, instead, the deck has four of each subject, but only two colours or suits, namely yellow and red (i.e. the two most valuable ones), also in this case counting a total of 56 cards. Curiously, the wrapper of the latter decks still reads "Four Colour Cards", in spite of the two lacking suits.

In Singapore, instead, the long variety prevails, manufactured by a local firm (Hua Goi Pte Ltd., Double Dragon Brand). The cards are locally known as Si Sek Pai, i.e. literally "four colour cards" in the Hokkien dialect, spoken by the majority of the Singaporean Chinese.

Besides these differences, the patterns are identical to the ones used in China: the rank is shown by means of a character borrowed from Chinese chess, repeated at both ends of the card, while the background colour (yellow, red, green or white) expresses the family or suit, and a different character or small drawing, merely for decorative purposes, fills the central space.

Mah Jong Cards

Decks of cards for the game of Mah Jong (or Majong, as spelt on the boxes) are manufactured in Malaysia. The name of the firm remains obscure, not being mentioned. They are the size variety closer to Western cards (i.e. not the very thin type, more often used in Hong Kong).

Malaysian ones, either made of cards or tiles, traditionally comprise some extra subjects which are only partly found in southern China, and are not found at all in the north; the selection featured below shows some of them. Besides the 144 regular ones, this edition includes four jokers (the ones that in the Cantonese area are sometimes called wild cards, or "100 purpose cards"), four animal cards (Rooster, Cat, Mouse and Centipede), and even two full sets of Flower and Season cards, which makes sixteen extras, all together.

A further interesting detail is that Malaysian Mah Jong decks sometimes bear advertisement on their backs, as this specimen does.

Above: Malaysian edition with a rather extended composition, comprising jokers, (bottom row) double Seasons and Flowers, and animal subjects; also note the advertisement on the back.


Above: Thailand (yellow).

Above: decks of Thai cards.

Also in Thailand, the most westernized among the southeastern Asian countries, the descendants of the many Chinese immigrants keep alive the use of traditional homeland patterns, but in the past few decades the number of players has considerably decreased.

Thai Cards

Above: the three special subjects: Old Thousand, Red Flower and White Flower.

The pattern locally called Pai Tai (simply "Thai cards") basically matches the Ceki decks of Indonesia and Malaysia. The composition is the same one as the latter: three suits (Coins, Strings and Myriads) of nine cards each, and three individual special subjects (Old Thousand, Red Flower and White Flower), each of which is repeated twice for a total of 60 cards, plus a spare blank one.

Above: from the left: 1 and 9 of Coins, Strings and Myriads

Red stamps appear on the usual subjects (Old Thousand, Red Flower and 9 of Strings).

In this case the shape of the cards is long and thin, as most Chinese editions, and their plain backs are deep orange in colour, as the ones of the DongGuan cards, or green.

However, quite a few typical differences of the Thai variety can be told.

A first general feature is that all the subjects of the deck are double-ended: each of them may be looked at from both sides, on which not only the index frame but also the inner part of the illustration is perfectly symmetrical to its opposite half. The wrapper of the deck mentions this feature as "two head type".

Above: 2 and 7 of Myriads: note the suit sign, and the Thai numerals.

The patterns of the black index frames are the same ones described for Indonesian or Malaysian Ceki cards, and follow the same ordering, but the one for "9" has a reversed position.

More differences specifically concern the Myriads suit. Its sign is no longer represented by a Wan character, but by a sort of double "I", vertically arranged. Also the numerals that indicate the value of each card of the suit are spelled in Thai, not in Chinese.

Furthermore, the central illustrations do not feature personages from "The Water Margin" novel, as in China, Indonesia and Malaysia, but only geometrical shapes: the stylized faces do not appear in the Thai edition.

Four Colour Cards

Above: the yellow back

Above: a General from each colour, standing next to a Soldier, a Cannon, a Chariot and a Mandarin.

The Pai Jîn Sì Sí, or "Chinese four colour cards", is a pattern made of 112 cards, divided into four suits of different colour (yellow, red, green and white, in decreasing value).

The seven subjects in each suit are taken from Chinese chess: General, Mandarin, Minister, Chariot, Horse, Cannon and Soldier, repeated four times.

This pattern is identical to the one found in China, the "long" variety of Si Se Pai, yet the Thai cards can be told by one detail: they have yellow backs, whereas all the Chinese editions have them in black.

"Chariot Horse Cannon" (Chinese Chess) Cards

Above: Soldier, Cannon, Horse, Chariot, Mandarin and (red) General.

Above: the same subjects from the opposing side.

Above: the backs.

Pai Pong Jîn, literally "Chinese gorgeous, bright cards", is the peculiar name given in Thailand to the two colour Chinese chess pattern. It has the same basic composition mentioned in the Chinese gallery part 2: each of the two sides (black suit and white suit) has General, Mandarin, Minister, Chariot, Horse and Cannon repeated eight times, while there are ten cards of the lowest rank, the Soldier, and no "special" subjects.

The total number of cards in a pack is 116, and unlike the four colour pattern their corners are sharp.

There are no special subjects, but the highest rank, i.e. the General, features a particularly ornate illustration, and in one of the two suits it is red.

The backs are plain, either orange or green.

Playing Cards Regulations in Thailand

Above: samples of Thai tax bands.

Thailand is one of the few countries whose government still holds the monopoly for the sale of playing cards. Each new deck has to bear the tax seal of the government's bureau, in the shape of a label glued to the wrapper or box.

Above: Thai playing cards showing the government’s tax seal on imported cards and the state manufacturer’s seal on the ace of spades.

The laws concerning the sale and the use of playing cards are somewhat strict: no gambling is allowed in public, whence the absence of casinos in Thailand, although in private houses this is a frequent practice. In shops, decks may be purchased only by adults (over 18).

Playing cards in Thailand are only printed by one state manufacturer, whose seal appears in the center of all the subjects of traditional patterns and on the ace of Spades of Poker decks.

Left: the mini-stamp on each imported card.

A limited number of editions are legally imported from abroad. Poker decks manufactured outside the country must carry a curious mini-stamp on every card, including the joker (see picture on the right).


Tô Tôm Cards

Above: Vietnam (yellow).

Also Vietnamese cards are strongly influenced by China's cultural heritage, both for their long and thin shape and for their patterns; they too typically belong to the money-suited group.

The pattern named Tô Tôm ("bowl of shrimps") from the main game played is a 120-card deck. There are three traditional Chinese suits, Coins (or Cash), Strings (or Threads) and Myriads, each of which runs from 1 to 9, plus three special cards named Ông-Lão (or "Old Man"), Không-Thang ("Zero Strings") and Chi-Chi ("Half Coin" or "Half Cash"). Each subject is repeated four times.

A pair of Chinese characters, referring to the suit sign and the value, are repeated on both ends of each card; folk personages in various attitudes and wearing traditional clothes appear in the central part, although they are merely decorative and are not related with the rank nor with the suits.

The 8s and 9s of Strings and Myriads, and the three special cards, bear a red stamp overlapped by the two Chinese characters (see pictures in the following paragraph).

In Tô Tôm, and more generally in Vietnamese cards, the special cards act almost as an "extension" of the ordinary suits, i.e. the "Old Man" may be added to the nine Myriads as the tenth card of the series, while the "Half Coin" comes before the ordinary 1 of Coins (but due to the reverse ranking of the cards in this suit, the Half Coin is actually the highest subject).

Besides Vietnam, Tô Tôm cards are also used in GuangXi region (southern China), by the Vietnamese border.

Bãt Cards

Above: 2 and 6 of Tens (on the left), and 1 and 9 of Strings (on the right).

This pattern is basically the same one as Tô Tom, but it has a fourth suit, and only one of each subject (i.e. no duplicates). The backs are deep orange, without any decoration.

The number of cards in the deck is 38; 35 of them belong to the four suits, and the three remaining subjects are the "Old Man", the "Zero Strings" and the "Half Coin", as in the previous pattern.

The suit signs and the values are identical to the ones in Tô Tom subjects, but in this pattern they are featured only once, above the central illustration: these cards are single-ended.

The fourth suit, Tens (in full, "tens of myriads"), matches in meaning the Sip cards of the Hakka pattern, although their characters are different. Vietnamese Tens, however, do not have a 1, running from 2 to 9. This gives reason for the total of 35 suit cards in the pack.

Above: "Old Man", "Zero Strings" and "Half Coin".

Above: 8 of Coins and 5 of Myriads.

The red stamps are featured by the same subjects as in Tô Tom cards, i.e. the three special cards, 8 of Myriads and Strings, 9 of Tens, Myriads and Strings (but not on the Coins one); note that Tens do not belong to Tô Tom) cards. This scheme is not far from the one found in Hakka cards.

Vietnamese patterns are quite traditional, having remained unchanged for at least one century.

Originally, they were printed in France by A.Camoin & Cie, a manufacturer in Marseille who produced a whole range of "exotic" playing card patterns for overseas territories, among which were also Chinese chess and Domino decks. The cards were then exported to South-eastern Asia, especially to the French colonies Tonkin (presently, northern Vietnam) and Cochinchina (southern Vietnam).

Other Chinese Patterns Used in South-eastern Asia

In South-eastern Asia the long variety of the four colour chess cards is identical in composition and shape to the ones manufactured in China.

The Vietnamese name for the four colour cards is Bai Tu Sac.

Also two colour chess cards, i.e. with the black side vs. the red or white side, are produced both in Thailand and in Vietnam. The Thai edithion is faithful to the Chinese standard, featuring a rather essential graphic style, printed in black and red. Instead, the Vietnamese editions are more ornate and colourful, with figurines of the subjects in the center of the card.

Lastly, Mah Jong decks are sometimes found in Vietnam and in Malaysia..

Vietnamese decks are long and thin, as most ones manufactured in China or Hong Kong, while editions made in Malaysia tend to be the large sized variety.

References & Notes

  • Due to romanization (i.e. the spelling of Oriental words in Western letters, based on their original sound) some names might have different spellings.
  • My gratitude to Pwee Keng Ho, ChungPang Lai, John McLeod and Dylan W.H. Sung for their valuable contribution to this section.
2 Articles

By Andy Pollett

Member since June 10, 1999

For almost one thousand years, in every part of the world, playing cards have been one of the most common pastimes. As a collectable item, instead, they are indeed less popular.

An amazing number of different varieties exists, surely many more than even the most experienced card players would ever imagine. There are decks with special illustrations in place of the usual courts, but others, used in some parts of the world, also have different suits in place of the ones most people are accustomed to. And some decks do not even have suits: according to the games they were created for, they may have numbers, or other special illustrations.

These pages discuss in depth most topics concerning playing cards, with a particular interest for their history, and the many patterns used in different countries, the obsolete ones as well as the varieties still used. The picture galleries, organized by type and by geographical distribution, present several examples of the varieties extant, providing at the same time an extensive description, yet easily understandable also for first-timers.

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