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A Vietnamese woman sits at a baccarat table at the Pechanga Casino in Temecula, California. She’s been there for three days straight, chasing her losses, leaving only to use the bathroom. In that time she’s borrowed $35,000 in casino markers and taken an $8,000 advance on her credit card. When it’s over, she’s broke. Nothing left.
Her story was recounted to Latitude News by Cathy Lam Dang, a labor organizer in New York who has a master’s degree in social welfare from UCLA. The woman was her mother, a compulsive gambler.
“The casino knew she’d been there for days,” says Dang. “How could they let her keep going? That kind of behavior is totally predatory.”
Dang says casinos are happy to advertise in Asian languages, but don’t provide services for Asian immigrants who want to escape their gambling habit.
“The night I was walking through Pechanga Casino looking for her,” Dang remembers, “I heard a slot machine spewing out Vietnamese words. A slot machine speaking Vietnamese! Even the state doesn’t have enough resources for immigrant communities. But the casinos do.”
A special relationship
Experts agree that Asian Americans love to gamble. Casinos know this and offer all sorts of advertisements and incentives to bring in their business. The industry says it’s good marketing. But activists argue that casinos disproportionately target Asian-American communities without providing enough support to individuals who suffer from gambling addiction.
“We are not unlike any other business out there that segments its marketing for different audiences,” says Judy Patterson, executive director of the American Gaming Association, a lobbying group. “It’s no different from what Starbucks and Bloomingdales do for their customers.”
In big cities with large Asian immigrant populations, you can find casino ads in Vietnamese, Korean, Khmer and Mandarin screaming from billboards, the radio and TV. Special bus lines run from Chinatowns and Asian restaurants to casinos around the country. Passengers get vouchers for free chips and meals (Foxwoods in Connecticut keeps an “Asian Bus Schedule” on its website). The MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas even had to remove a giant statue of a lion from its entrance because Asian gamblers thought walking through the mouth of the feline predator would bring them bad luck.
Bad bets, broken lives
It’s hard to say conclusively that Asian Americans suffer more from problem gambling than other groups. National data that takes ethnicity into account is difficult to come by. A 2009 study by the federal government combined Asian Americans and Native Americans because of the small sample size. It found that 2.3 percent of those groups are problem gamblers compared with 1.2 percent of whites (the rate for African Americans was also high at 2.2 percent).
But smaller studies indicate Asian Americans are more likely to develop a gambling problem. Dr. Timothy Fong, the director of UCLA’s Addiction Medicine Clinic, tells Latitude News that one study he conducted in a California casino found about 30 percent of the customers were Asian — nearly a third of those clients met the criteria for problem gambling, which Fong defines as a “continued pattern of gambling that results in harmful consequences.”
“Research suggests problem gambling rates are higher in Asian-American communities that have access to brick-and-mortar gambling facilities,” he says. “And the impact they feel from gambling is different from non-Asian communities. By the time they reach out for treatment, the damage is more severe. When they come in they have higher debts, more crime, more damage in their lives, and a harder time accepting mental health treatment.”
So why this special relationship between gambling and Asian Americans?
Part of the reason is cultural. Numerology — the idea that certain numbers and even people are inherently lucky — is popular in many Asian societies. And for many new immigrants gambling becomes a social event, the casino a place to make friends with fellow wanderers from the old country.
Several experts consulted by Latitude News also pointed to trauma as one underlying factor leading to gambling addiction.
“Look at how a lot of Asian folks got into this country,” says Myron Quon, national director of the National Asian Pacific American Families Against Substance Abuse. “Many of them are survivors of war, or a horrible journey across the ocean. They don’t understand the local culture here, so gambling is a release, a way to deal with the stress.”
If you can’t communicate, you can’t get better
Cultural barriers prevent many Asian Americans, especially older people, from seeking help. That can be a problem because gambling addiction is often linked to other issues like depression, drug abuse, financial debt and even suicide.
“A lot of times in Asian communities gambling is seen as a moral weakness, something you should be able to control,” explains Margot Cahoon of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, a non-profit organization. “We need to break that stigma. It’s not a moral failing, it’s an addiction.”
Cahoon argues that casinos, non-profits and the government need to work together to make sure Asian Americans have access to resources in their native languages. Myron Quon agrees, noting the number of casinos “willing to deal with you in whatever language it takes to get your business, but when it comes to gambling addiction prevention they offer English, Spanish and that’s pretty much it.”
Judy Patterson of the American Gaming Association says the language gap is narrowing, and her organization is translating the anti-addiction materials it distributes into non-Mandarin Asian languages.
“A lot of people share responsibility for this issue,” she says. “Are treatment providers providing service equally to [the Asian American] population? Are regulators serving them? This is not just an obligation of the gaming industry, it’s something everyone bears responsibility for.”
As for Cathy Lam Dang’s mother, after her crash at Pachenga she did seek help. But her local Gamblers Anonymous only offered meetings in Mandarin and Cantonese. She and her husband have since returned to Vietnam.
Dang says her mother doesn’t gamble anymore. Vietnamese casinos don’t appreciate unpaid debts and will hire thugs to extract what’s owed in bullet wounds and broken bones.
“In Vietnam,” she says, “you risk your life when you borrow from a casino.”