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Gambling, Addiction, & Asian Culture

The following is a reprint of an article written by John M. Glionna of the Los Angeles Times, entitled Gambling Seen as No-Win Situation for Some Asians, originally published January 16, 2006. It discusses the popularity of gambling among Asian Americans, its ties to traditional Asian culture, and some of the problems of addiction associated with it.


An Emerging Community Issue

In Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean and Cambodian communities, social workers and leaders are pressuring gaming officials and state legislators to recognize a hidden epidemic. "This isn't a special-interest group overblowing a problem," said Timothy Fong, co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, which is conducting an Asian gambling study. "We think this is real."

Nobody really knows how deeply problem gambling reaches into Asian communities because Asians have not been broken out as a group in national or California studies on the issue. But a 1999 poll in San Francisco's Chinatown, commissioned by a social services agency, found that 70% of 1,808 respondents ranked gambling as their community's No. 1 problem.

Vietnamese American woman gambling in a casino © Béatrice de Géa/LA Times

In a follow-up poll, 21% of respondents considered themselves pathological gamblers and 16% more called themselves problem gamblers -- rates significantly higher than in the overall population. Current data suggest that 1.6% of Americans can be classified as pathological gamblers, a condition recognized as a psychiatric disorder. About 3% more are considered problem gamblers.

Gambling has become America's adult pastime of choice. Each year, more money is spent in the nation's $75-billion gaming industry than on movies, concerts, sporting events and amusement parks combined. And nowhere is gambling on a bigger roll than in California, with nearly 60 Indian casinos, scores of card rooms, racetracks and Internet gambling sites as well as one of the nation's most lucrative state lotteries.

Asian gamblers play a key role in that success. Though few statistics on their contribution to the state's gambling pot exist, some casinos and card rooms near Los Angeles and San Francisco estimate that Asians often account for 80% of their customers. "Asians are a huge market," said Wendy Waldorf, a spokeswoman for the Cache Creek Casino north of San Francisco. "We cater to them."

Each day in San Gabriel, Monterey Park and San Francisco's Chinatown, scores of buses collect Asian customers for free junkets to Indian casinos and to Reno and Las Vegas. Many Nevada casinos also maintain business offices in Monterey Park, where hosts keep in regular touch with Asian high rollers. To reach more run-of-the-mill gamblers, casinos run ads in Asian-language print and broadcast media and conduct direct-mailing campaigns to ZIP Codes with high numbers of Asian residents.


A Tradition of Gambling

Many Asians -- especially Chinese -- consider gambling an accepted practice at home and at social events, even among the young. Chinese youths often gamble for money with aunts, uncles and grandparents. While growing up in San Francisco's Chinatown, Lee took betting to absurd levels -- wagering on whether the teacher would assign homework. On rainy days, he bet on which drop would first reach the bottom of the classroom window.

Group of Chinese Americans scratching off lottery tickets © Beatrice de Gea/LA Times

Many Chinese are fascinated by the mystical qualities of luck, fate and chance. The Chinese New Year -- this year Jan. 29 -- is a time of heightened wagering, when bad luck of the old year is ushered out by the good luck of the new. Numerology also plays a crucial role in many Asian cultures. The number 8, for example, is considered extremely lucky by many Chinese, while 4, when spoken in Mandarin and Cantonese, sounds like the word for death and is avoided.

Though Chinese believe most strongly in such concepts, other Asian cultures, including Vietnamese, Korean and Filipino, hold similar beliefs -- depending on China's political influence in their history or the extent of Chinese immigration there. Experts believe that recent Asian immigrants -- risk-takers willing to leave the familiarity of their homelands -- develop more aggressive gambling strategies than their U.S.-born counterparts.

Often lacking language skills and advanced education, some gravitate to casinos, where waitresses dote on gamblers with free drinks and cigarettes. "They're treated as honored guests even though they work dead-end, minimum-wage jobs," said Tina Shum, a social worker in San Francisco's Chinatown. "That's what they long for." Some eventually engage in "attack" gambling: wagering sums beyond their means in a reckless grab at the American dream. "The immigrant experience is often demeaning," Shum said. "Many get blinded by the neon lights."


Losing More Than Money

But such gaming habits come at a cost. "An astronomical amount of money leaves the Asian community for gambling industry coffers," said Paul Osaki, a member of a gambling task force created last year by the state Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs. "It's not all discretionary money. It's quality-of-life money, food-on-the-table money, college education money."

Osaki and other activists want more research and culturally sensitive gambling treatment programs for often-reserved Asians with gambling problems -- for whom Western strategies like Gamblers Anonymous rarely work. Kent Woo, executive director of a Chinatown-based health coalition that conducted the gambling polls, said the biggest challenge is to convince the community that it has a problem.

Traditional Chinese cards © Getty Images

"Breaking through the denial is the hard part," he said. Still, activists say, California's Office of Problem Gambling is under-funded and disorganized. The agency's $3-million budget is derived from contributions from 26 Native American-run casinos. Thirty other tribal casinos do not contribute. Nor do card rooms, race tracks or the state lottery. In 2003 the office left its entire budget unspent.

Diane Ujiiye, who heads the problem gambling task force, said $3 million wasn't nearly enough to deal with the issue. "It's unacceptable," she said. "What can you do with $3 million? Publish a couple of brochures and run a hotline?"


Denial and Dependence

When Bill Lee was on a roll, nothing mattered but the gambling, not even family. He fell for the VIP treatment that came with betting thousands of dollars at a casino: free hotel suites and concert tickets, having casino managers know his name. "I was a big shot," Lee said, "as long as the money lasted." Angela, 52, a San Gabriel Valley Las Vegas gambling tour guide operator, said that on most trips, she ended up losing her own money and began playing with the company's funds.

She said she tried to tame her zealous gambling. On one Vegas trip, she gave all her credit cards to a friend and begged her not to return them, no matter what she said. Later, after losing all her cash, Angela threatened to slap her friend unless she returned the cards. "She threw the cards on the floor and I got down onto my hands and knees without shame to pick them up."

Angela helped start one of the state's few Mandarin Chinese gambling treatment programs. But she soon realized a hard fact: Admitting an addiction is difficult in any culture. But many Asians find it particularly hard, especially men. "It's shameful to be emotionally weak," Lee said. "It's not acceptable. So you certainly don't get up and bare your soul before a room full of strangers."

To save face among neighbors, many families will bail out an addicted gambler, paying off casinos and loan sharks, rather than seek help. Asian American advocates are urging casinos to distribute brochures in Asian languages offering help to problem gamblers. More ambitiously, they want ATMs in casinos closed and overnight hours curtailed to discourage problem gamblers. They also would like the state to require gaming venues to contribute to treatment programs.

Yet casino owner Chu warned that "too many restrictions will kill business."



Author Citation

Copyright © 2006 by John M. Glionna and the Los Angeles Times. Reprinted in accordance with Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.

Suggested reference: Glionna, John M. 2006. "Gambling, Addiction, and Asian Culture" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/gambling.shtml> ().


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