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10 old-school toys & games that Hongkongers grew up with

By Catharina Cheung 25 March 2020

Header image courtesy of Evangelical Lutheran Church Social Service Hong Kong

Yes, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is out and it seems like at least a good quarter of humanity is stuck at home, escaping into their beautiful little islands and stealing resources from their friends. We thought it would be interesting to look back at just how far games have come over the past few decades. Here are some retro toys and games that every kid who grew up in Hong Kong will recognise!

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Photo credit: hktoystory
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Aeroplane Chess 飛行棋

Also known as Flying Chess, Aeroplane Chess is a game very similar to Ludo. Players have to move all four of their plane pieces from their start points—the hangars, if you will—into the base at the centre of the board. Movements around the board are determined by rolling a die. Rolling a five or six will get a piece out of the hangar, and thereafter along the board.

There are ways in which players can progress quickly through the game: when a plane lands on a space of its own colour, it immediately jumps to the next space of that colour; rolling a six will give a player another go on the die; and there are also shortcut spaces which allow players to skip over almost a quarter of the board if landed upon.

Of course, there are also obstacles in the way. When a player lands on an opponent’s plane, the opponent has to return that piece to their hangar and start its journey all over again. There’s nothing worse than a plane being sent back to the beginning when it’s this close to making its descent into the centre! For such a tame game, Aeroplane Chess sure can get players riled up.

2

Pick-up sticks (竹籤)

This old school favourite isn’t just limited to Western countries! Pick-up sticks is a game that requires detailed skill, a sharp eye, and steady hands—definitely not one to attempt when intoxicated. A bunch of satay skewer-like sticks are dropped loosely so they form a tangled pile. Each player then has to remove a stick without disturbing any of the others; their turn doesn’t end until they fail.

Players can attempt this free-hand, or use a stick they’ve already collected to help. In the most basic version of the game, the player with the most number of sticks wins, but in other variations, the sticks have different colours or patterns which denote the number of points they are worth.

Photo credit: hktoystory
3

Chinese Checkers (波子棋)

Despite being called Chinese Checkers, this is a strategy game which originated from a German game called Sternhalma. It can be played with two to six players, and the objective is to move all of your pieces along the hexagonal board and into the triangular corner directly opposite the corner you start from.

Strategic thinking is key to Chinese Checkers, as each player takes turns moving a single piece in each turn. They can either shift the piece one step to an adjacent empty slot, or jump over any other pieces. As long as the jumps are over pieces, with empty slots in the middle to land in, they can be strung together in a consecutive series, bringing the piece across the board quickly.

Of course, you could have a route all mapped out, only to have a critical piece be moved by its player, rendering your plans worthless. Thinking a few steps ahead is vital to racing everyone’s checker pieces home!

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

By Catharina Cheung 6 February 2020
By Catharina Cheung 14 February 2020
4

Jungle (鬥獸棋)

Literally meaning “fighting animal game” in Chinese, Jungle has also been called Oriental Chess or Animal Chess, and is a two-player board game popular with Asian children. Players control eight game pieces, each representing different animals of various ranks or strengths.

From strongest to weakest, they are the elephant, lion, tiger, leopard, dog, wolf, cat, and rat. Stronger animals can “eat” animals of weaker or the same rank, taking them out of gameplay—with the exception of the rat being able to eat the elephant. The game board also has dens, traps, and rivers to navigate, and the player to first manoeuvre any one of their pieces into the opponent’s den wins.

Taking turns to move one square horizontally or vertically, animals must advance through the jungle terrain without getting eaten. The game is complicated by certain special rules regarding movement. The only animal allowed to go into the river squares is the rat, while the lion and tiger can jump across the river horizontally or vertically.

The end goal of the den is protected by traps; any animal that steps into the opposing side’s traps—and they will need to at some point to reach the den—has no rank while in the trap and can be eaten by an animal of any strength. If you liked the film Jumanji, you’ll likely enjoy playing Jungle!

Photo credit: historyofentertainment
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“Cartoon papers” (公仔紙)

The unimaginatively named “cartoon papers” were essentially the trading cards of their time. The characters on these cards could be historical figures or cartoon characters. These came in big sheets, and shopkeepers would cut out the number of cards you wanted to purchase. Interestingly, cigarette packs would sometimes also come with a “cartoon paper” inside!

Aside from being collectibles, children would also fashion their cards into games. Like in pogs, players would throw their card on their opponents, trying to get it to flip and claiming their card if they succeed. Another variation involved slapping the surface that the card is lying on instead of the card itself, again to try to flip them over.

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Plastic swords (膠劍仔)

You’d be excused for mistaking these little swords for novelty toothpicks, but they were in fact all the rage a few decades back! These eponymously named toys were first sold in the 1950s, coming in a variety of colours. The initial lineup consisted of 18 knives, swords, axes, and other weapons, but by the 1980s, this had expanded to dozens of varieties.

The gameplay is simple: Two players set up a predetermined space with a weapon of their choice on the surface, then take turns flicking their weapons at their opponents. A player can claim their opponent’s weapon if they successfully get their sword to rest on top of the other one. You may have played a similar game with erasers instead; the logic is the same, but tiny plastic swords weigh next to nothing and are harder to control.

We’re sure many kids have amassed a gigantic collection of these tiny blades back in their day. Plastic swords were so ubiquitous that when the Hong Kong Post Office launched a series of limited edition stamps with the theme of ‘Toys of Hong Kong: 1940s–1960s,’ each set of stamps aimed at boys came with 25 little swords!

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

Photo credit: hktoystory
7

Beanbags (挖子/豆袋)

Not everyone could afford to buy manufactured toys in the past, so parents would get creative and make toys out of what they happened to have at home. The humble bean bag would have simply been fashioned out of sewing up rice or grains into small scraps of fabric. Imaginative children would have had no problems thinking up a myriad of games out of chucking bean bags around.

For us, the best version involved having five tiny bean bags in front of the player, who would throw one into the air, scoop up a second, and catch the first one as it fell. The process would then repeat with increasing difficulty: throwing the two that they have into the air, scooping up a third bean bag, then catching the first two, and so on.

If you think pressing button combinations on devices is difficult, try snatching little grain-filled projectiles out of the air while also making time to fumble blindly for another lying somewhere on the floor!

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Kaleidoscope tubes (萬花筒)

If kaleidoscopes were still a thing now, they would be classed as an idle entertainment form of self-care. The mechanics behind this optical instrument are simple: Two or more reflecting surfaces are set at tilted angles to create regular symmetrical patterns due to repeated reflection.

One end of the tube will contain brightly coloured bits of plastic, glass, or other materials. Rotating the tube and moving these materials will result in an ever-changing pattern in the reflections, which can be very pretty and hypnotic. You can quite easily make your own kaleidoscope tube for a true blast from the past!

9

Jianzi or shuttlecock (踢毽子)

With a long history of being played in Chinese culture, jianzi is a traditional game and a Chinese national sport which is also popular in various parts of Asia. The aim is for players to keep a weighted shuttlecock in the air using any part of their bodies but their hands. It has since been made into a formal competitive game known as Hacky-Sack, played on a rectangular court divided by a net, much like in badminton.

Even now, you can sometimes spot a circle of elderly people in parks showing off their kicking skills—we often come across an energetic group on the steps of Shin Hing Street in Central who could definitely teach us a thing or two.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

Photo credit: wisst-ihr-noch
10

Fishing game

Moving on from the truly old-school, there was then a period of electronic toys that preceded the GameBoys and Tamagotchis of our childhood. These were electronic for the sake of movement, and arguably the best of them all was the fishing game. Somehow, every early- to mid-Millennial baby you ask will have had one of these bad boys when they were little.

There’s just something timelessly appealing about a rotating tray of little fishes opening their mouths periodically for players to snag with a little magnet tied to the end of a stick. We look back fondly now, but there were definitely moments when “the fishes weren’t cooperating” and we almost chucked the whole thing out the window.

If you’ve played this before, we just know that as the game went on, you’ve gradually inched your hand down the rod until you were simply gripping the string—don’t pretend otherwise!

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.

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