High Stakes

As casinos target Asian Americans, community groups mobilize.

May 1, 2006

Illustrator Cielo Oreste

As a tour guide in Rancho Cucamonga, CA, Angela finds herself taking busloads of tourists to casinos in Las Vegas several times a week.

But you’ll never see her drop a nickel in a slot machine, nor bet a fiver on red at the roulette table.

That’s because Angela, a 53-year-old Taiwanese American, is a recovering gambling addict who has been gamble-free since December 2002. Before she found Gamblers Anonymous, Angela (who asked that she not be identified by her full name) was accustomed to playing $25 slot machines and betting thousands of dollars on blackjack and Pai Gow poker. But after seven years of this behavior—when she lost her house, filed for bankruptcy and got divorced—she knew she needed help.

“I cannot think of one day I lived without gambling,” she says now. “At that time, it was very devastating. I was really wishing to die but really hoping to survive at the same time.”

With growing numbers of Asian tourism companies highlighting bus trips to Las Vegas, and significant numbers of young Asian Americans planning last-minute trips to nearby Indian casinos, gambling is a popular activity in the Asian community. The situation has some Asian American advocacy groups concerned.

Kent Woo, director of the NICOS Chinese Health Coalition in San Francisco, says a study that the coalition conducted in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1997 revealed that Chinese American adults considered gambling the biggest problem facing their community.

Woo and other advocates are eager to address the problem. NICOS now offers counseling services for problem gamblers and their families. The California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs formed a gambling task force in 2005 to advocate for possible public policy changes regarding Asians and gambling. And Timothy Fong, a psychiatrist and co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, is working on an Asian gambling study.

Asians’ tendency to become problem gamblers can be attributed to cultural acceptance of gambling, possible mental weakness to gambling addiction, a cultural reticence to seeking help, or a combination of the three, experts say.

Advocates are also looking at whether casinos’ practice of targeting Asians in their marketing and promotions is problematic. Casinos habitually hire Asian staff and book entertainment from Asia to entice customers. In California, Indian casinos offer free shuttle services to and from Asian senior or community centers.

“We need to look more carefully at what casinos are doing,” Woo says. “They’re targeting our communities, and we have an almost admitted weakness to it. I think we should be outraged by that.”

Meanwhile, Asian Americans who do get hooked into gambling refuse to seek help because of the cultural stigma attached to mental illness.

“See no evil, speak no evil—it’s the denial thing,” says Diane Ujiiye, chair of the California Commission on Asian Pacific Islander Affairs Gambling Task Force. “The stigma and the shame, not wanting the Wongs or the Takahashis to know they have a problem, factors in a great deal. By the time they do seek help, they’re usually in dire straits.”

The task force is hoping to use the results of a statewide gambling prevalence study as a foundation for fighting for additional funding or public policy changes to address gambling addiction among Asian Americans.

Until then, people like Angela are doing their part to help. A devoted member of Gamblers Anonymous, she has organized the first Chinese American meeting that group has seen in 47 years.

“For the past five years, I have seen so many people who come, cry, are in tears,” she says. “But gradually, if they stay in the program, things get better.”

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