Who invented the Chifa?

The Chifa book is a pictorial dictionary widely used by punters in Penang and throughout Malaysia for lottery games, and the artist who drew them was apparently my grandfather, Lim Chuin Wei (b. Zhangzhou, Fujian Province, China in 1924).

The book lists numbers beginning from 000 to 999 and consists of 1000 pictures showing a variety of objects, actions and words. It is used as a reference book on what numbers to buy, based on scenarios of a person’s life that can be deemed to be good or bad omens.

Below is the story recounted to me, his granddaughter, in 2011 when I asked him about how he came to be involved:

The Chifa book was written in Penang sometime in 1960. A hobbyist sketcher in his free time, my grandfather was working as an English teacher and earning a mere RM100 a month. He lived in Jelutong and was approached by an enterprising young man named Loo Boon Hun who was a songbook producer. According to my grandfather, times were hard and he agreed to do the job for some extra income.

An example of the chifa drawings, ranging from numbers 001 to 999
An example of the chifa drawings, ranging from numbers 001 to 999

To begin the process, he randomly assigned the numbers 1 to 1000 and created groupings of everyday items and actions. For example, he classified 1-10 for birds and went through all the birds known to him, like sparrows and mynas until he could not think of anymore.

The idea behind the drawings was that he would show only common scenarios, so that the everyday man or woman can relate to them. These included household items and things seen on the streets. He then wrote the scenarios down on strips of paper first.

With the help of his two young sons who were just below the age of 10 (my uncle and father), the boys jumbled up the strips as though it was a lucky draw box. My grandfather would then take out the strips one by one and sketch each scenario out onto a manila card. Using Indian ink, he drew them to scale in boxes and appropriated the numbers 001 to 1036 in the order which he removed the strips. Within two weeks, the drawings were completed.

Mr Loo then brought it to the printers and it became an instant hit after devotees at a Jelutong temple referred to it during a baby’s full moon party. Word of mouth spread and it soon became a must-have for every household, selling across peninsula Malaysia, Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Singapore.

There are many versions of the Chifa available in the market today, such as the Kuan Yin (left) or Tua Pek Kong (right) versions
Different Chifa books are available in the market today, such as the Kuan Yin (left) or Tua Pek Kong (right) versions

Mr Loo was so successful from the Chifa books that he opened a small bookshop called Boon Hua Seow Tiok in Penang. According to my grandfather, he even went back to China and promoted the book in his ancestral village. There, he also took a second wife.

Upon completion of the book, Mr Loo had wanted to give my grandfather 20 copies of the Chifa, but my grandfather refused to accept it, saying that he did not want anything to do with it. Up till today, he does not want to be recognised as the artist. His reason was that he was a professed Christian and did not believe in gambler’s luck. He maintains his reason that he did it only as a source of income.

The Chifa book today is still widely used and ubiquitious as a gambler’s Bible. One punter even called it a “special little clandestine book” where Penangnites and Malaysians have taken the lottery game up one level. When I showed my grandfather the book, he said that it has changed considerably from his original drawings, which in his own words, were “quite poorly done”.




  1. julyaoui says:

    Of all things and time, I was looking for the history of this book and found your website. They still sell this in Taiping and I just bought them for reference. I didn’t know they were called Chifa book. Thanks to your write up now I know.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I remember in my childhood days that people gambling on chi “字” and fa “花” in Penang on weekly basis. People will be running around to announce the winners when they were announced. Sundry shops were the punters at that time as these were the places gathering people and they were well respected by their networking.

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