Police arrested 129 people when they closed down 11 illegal mahjong parlours in a Shau Kei Wan residential block yesterday.
But the raids upset elderly customers of the informal parlours, who said they had been enjoying low-stakes games there for 20 years.
More than 60 officers swooped on the mezzanine floor of Eastway Towers in Shau Kei Wan Main Street East yesterday.
Police found that 11 of the 23 shops there were operating as locations for illegal gambling. Police arrested 74 men and 55 women aged from 20 to 90.
Some HK$8,000, alleged to have been paid as commission by the players to the operators, was seized in the raid. Officers believe the gambling dens had been operating for more than a year.
But a group of elderly residents in the area said they had existed for more than 20 years.
"Most visitors were old people, including retired fishermen. We played mahjong games there for leisure and each game involved HK$20 to HK$30," said one regular customer who escaped arrest yesterday.
"Each of us was charged HK$20 for an hour and a half's play. We were offered Chinese tea and bread for free, in an air-conditioned environment," the elderly customer said.
She said the operators needed money for hiring staff to serve customers and to pay utility bills and rent.
Her friend, also an elderly woman, said they usually came in the afternoon after lunch and went home before 6pm to prepare dinner.
"Aside from playing mahjong games, sometimes we went there to chat and take a rest. It was a good place for us to get together," the woman said.
The residents claimed the shops had private club licences, deeming the police raids needless.
But Chief Inspector Sunny Lam Kai-chor, of the Hong Kong Island crime unit, said collecting money from players and charging them was in breach of Hong Kong laws.
Thirteen of the suspects were arrested on suspicion of managing and operating the mahjong parlours.
The others, including three mainland visitors, were gamblers.
The gambling dens were understood to have operated from 11am to 10pm every day.
"Each shop is a different size and can house up to 20 mahjong tables," Lam said.
There was no evidence to suggest there was a single syndicate or a triad gang behind them, Lam added.
The operation was initiated after police received intelligence that several shops were being used as gambling dens on the mezzanine floor of the building.
Last night, most of the arrested suspects had been released on bail.