IMAGINE the scene: a trusty Justice of the Peace, requested to witness the Mark Six draw to see fair play on behalf of Hong Kong's three million hopeful punters, leaps up in front of the television cameras and suggests it may have been rigged. Since that is supposed to be the JP's role, you might wonder what would happen next. Yet the Jockey Club has neither imagined nor wondered: officials have no plan for such a situation. In fact, they are struck dumb when asked. I did ask. After a profound silence, so long that I began to think I was either very stupid or mad, Lotteries Board secretary Philip Chan Kwok-choi said: 'I can't think of any reason why the JP would object and query the draw.' JP Gerry Forsgate, who has attended the draw several times in its 20-year history, might agree with him. 'It's no big deal,' he said. 'It's rather like watching grass grow. I think everyone's too keen to get out to object to anything.' But I persisted with the officials. Wasn't the JP there to object if it seemed necessary? Another silence. Then information secretary Wilson Cheng Kwok-ming said: 'We have every confidence in our operating procedures.' The JP, 'the public's representative', does sign a document after the draw agreeing that everything has been done above board. Rather one-way representation, perhaps. In several ways, attending the Mark Six draw seems like visiting a hall of mirrors. One golden rule you must not forget: the draw is not intended to be fun. This Thursday there is an extra $10 million on the line, for the big Easter snowball draw, but even that seems to be little to smile about. Jeffrey Chan Wing-hung - senior programming manager of ATV, which has shown the draw throughout its 20-year history - sums up the attitude: 'The whole purpose is not to be entertaining.' The rule is that the draw be shown to satisfy the public that it is all above board. But heaven forbid that people enjoy it. Even the 20th anniversary of the Mark Six this year is not meant for celebration. Mr Chan said any mark of the date would be to note the 20th year of the Lotteries Board, not the lottery itself. 'There may be some special celebrations but in what form I can't tell you. If there is one, it will be low-key. We don't want to promote gambling,' he said - leaving one wondering what else the Lotteries Board was set up for. The brightly lit, red-walled room at Happy Valley racecourse where the draw is done, with its two cushioned chairs, false flowers and a lectern, resembles nothing as much as an undertakers. I asked to inspect the balls. I was told that only about five trusty operations staff were ever allowed to touch them, and then only wearing white gloves. They were washed after every 10 uses and X-rayed - 'to make sure there's nothing inside' - their diameter measured and each ball weighed regularly, 'always by surprise' by the audit department. But no one would give away the weight: they were 'quite heavy', being solid rubber. The French factory that made the balls and bouncing machines would not allow their weights to vary by more than 0.5 per cent, although the Jockey Club's demanded standard was 'much higher than that - we have set a very very high standard for ourselves', Mr Chan said. What was that standard? He would not say. One rumour, they insisted, was a myth. No, they didn't know the numbers on which people bet; they couldn't even be sure what were the most popular numbers, although they could guess based on what everyone knows about eight and four, for instance. 'You could take out the information on every bet,' said Mr Cheng. 'But we don't know how people bet on each number because we would have to write a program.' Were they kidding? The Jockey Club is reputed to have one of the most sophisticated computer systems in the world, with a vast team of programmers and technicians to run it. Was I being taken for a ride? I just could not tell. It's all rather odd, particularly the seriousness: but you can't be sure whether that's just for public consumption. For instance, according to Mr Chan, elaborate preparations have already started for the draw while you still have three hours in which to buy your tickets and dream of never having to sit at your dull desk again after that evening. At 3.30pm or so on a Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, a poker-faced Jockey Club security guard and a staff member gather at a rather battered, buff-coloured safe in an office on the ground floor of the club's operations building. In a classic symbiotic relationship, both are needed to complete the task before them: the security guard provides the key, while the club employee presents the combination to open the rotating, clicking lock. Safe opened, out comes the metal briefcase containing that day's set of 45 numbered balls. The club has three sets, and it is taking no chances. One set is stored off-site so that should a small incident like a fire or flood put the safe out of action, Hong Kong's gambling-mad public would not face the unthinkable - a missed draw. The security guard carries the precious case, accompanied by the club officer, through the labyrinth of corridors to the draw room. It is an odd place, cut off from the world. In each corner stand the club's two Mark Six ball-bouncing machines: one is a stand-by in case of breakdown. Each is a perspex drum with front door fastened on by metal bolts that look as if they mean business, topped by columns in which the balls are piled before the draw starts. These current models - the third the club has used - reputedly cost about $500,000 from French firm Ryo Catteau, though neither Ryo nor the Jockey Club will confirm the figure. 'Each machine is custom-made for the client,' claims a Ryo Catteau spokesman from the town of Tourcoing, near Lille on the Belgian border. 'There is no standard price.' The security guard opens the box to reveal the balls - one to nine in yellow, 10 to 18 in green, 19 to 27 in brown, 28 to 36 in blue and 37 to 45 in pink. They are kept in individual foam pockets to avoid knocking against each other - though that is what they are made to do in the drum. A white-gloved operations officer loads the balls into the columns. Two dry runs later, the machine doors are tightly bolted, lights switched off and the room locked up. At about 6pm, the television crew, comprising several jeans-clad, bored technicians and a glamorous presenter, make their way through the deserted building to set up their gear. With several unsmiling security staff to ensure machine and balls are left untouched, they run through their tests; nervous presenter practises speech; and a few Jockey Club officials hang about. That night's JP arrives - having found his way through the corridors - with a few minutes to spare. After a cursory glance at the machine, he is seated next to it: he seems never to look at it again until after the draw. In the next-door producers' room, three TV staff watch the screen and press buttons while two others read magazines. And when everything finally gets going, it becomes clear why no other newspapers have attended the draw since its trial days in 1975. Without being rude, let's just say once is enough. That night's JP, Dr William San Wai-lam, and Jockey Club official Mr Chan sat stony-faced through the seven-minute procedure while the ATV presenter, Margaret Chan Kit-yee, fought hard to give the occasion any brightness. The TV viewers may be treated to supermarket music through the draw, but in the studio all is silence. The officials sit transfixed. Is this all there is? The lack of razzmatazz is down to Lotteries Board requirements on how the draw is screened, says ATV's Mr Chan. If truth be known, he is not over-glad to have it: 'As far as programming is concerned, it's disruptive for the flow. The Mark Six ratings are not particularly attractive, maybe worse than normal. We have to cut short the dramas [shown before it]; we have to do a lot of work to accommodate it.' In fact, 'it's not a fully-fledged TV programme', he says, because of the rules barring TV companies from showing programmes that incorporate lotteries. 'It's to show the draw is being conducted in a fair and proper manner. We are contracted to provide production facilities, but they do the format.' Mr Cheng laughs when asked why some more spark isn't introduced, even a live audience. Who would travel for an hour from Sha Tin just to watch the balls bouncing around when all they were interested in was the final magic set of six numbers? Livelier showings of lotteries elsewhere is a difference of culture, he says. ATV has always had the TV deal, despite the contract coming up for renewal every two or three years. The story at TVB is that the company 'does not want to encourage people to bet', but ATV's Mr Chan reckons the company doesn't want it. A TVB spokesman tacitly agrees. 'TVB producers don't think much can be done to make showing the Mark Six attractive,' he says. Mr Forsgate, who last attended the draw in December, agrees. 'People don't want to see the show, just the numbers,' he said. 'Except for those who sit with their pencils poised, it's not very exciting.' Mr Chan, in an unusual light moment, said: 'The Mark Six is just a game of chance. You should not read too much into it.' But legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly's comment about another game seems apt: 'Football is not a matter of life and death. It's much more serious than that.'