Bill Lee’s father was sold as a boy to cover a gambling debt.
In the early 1900s, Lee’s grandfather lost a wager during a gambling binge in China. With no money to settle up, his only son had to go.
The failed bet unloosed a legacy of problem gambling for Lee’s family. His father became an obsessive gambler who never mentioned being raised by a man who won him in a card game. “I saw how gambling destroyed my dad,” Lee said. “Part of me also learned, ‘Oh, that’s how you deal with conflict; that’s how you escape.’ ”
For years, gambling also ruled Lee’s life.
His 2005 book “Born to Lose: Memoirs of a Compulsive Gambler” dissects the cultural attitudes that he contends make many Asian immigrants susceptible to problem gambling.
In recovery, the 51-year-old high-tech recruiter is on the forefront of a battle by Asian Americans in California against out-of-control gambling.
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. 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. By 2010, annual gaming proceeds will top $10 billion dollars, carrying California past Nevada as the No. 1 gambling destination in the world, gaming experts say.
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.
Most gambling venues celebrate Asian holidays, hire bilingual staffers and feature the latest nightclub acts from Shanghai, Seoul and Manila.
Cache Creek Casino has a tank featuring a popular 2-foot-long dragon fish named Mr. Lucky. Dragon fish are considered good fortune by many Chinese gamblers, who often rub the tank for luck.
Culture is a recurring theme in Lee’s book, which describes how 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.
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.”
But such gaming habits come at a cost. Shum estimates that one-fourth of her 150 annual spousal abuse cases are tied to problem gambling.
“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.
The task force also is urging prosecutors to explore possible connections between compulsive gambling and such crimes as fraud and spousal abuse. They’ve met with casino owners, asking them to support research and treatment programs.
California’s 4 million Asian residents -- 13% of the population -- also should be broken out as a category in gambling prevalence studies, activists say.
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.
“Breaking through the denial is the hard part,” he said. “For the community to simply accept that someone has lost their apartment building or their business to gambling -- there’s something terribly wrong with that.”
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.
“That first year we had no staff; you need people to run programs,” said agency director Steve Hedrick. He said his office is spending $1.6 million for a new problem gambling prevalence study to be completed this year.
The office has contacted Asian American leaders for guidance on programs.
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?”
Officials blame staffing shortages for not having spent the money.
“That first year we had no staff; you need people to run programs,” said agency director Steve Hedrick. Leo Chu, owner of the Hollywood Park Casino, said he would not object to contributing to the state’s problem gambling fund. Chu says casinos sponsor self-exclusion programs in which problem gamblers can ask that casinos refuse to admit them.
Though Chu does not gamble, he acknowledges that many Asians develop problems. “I wish customers would recognize a responsibility to their families as much as their desire for a good time,” he said. “But you can’t legislate common sense.”
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 tour guide who often accompanied Asian customers on Las Vegas gambling junkets, said that on most trips, she ended up losing her own money and began playing with the company’s funds. Angela, who is in treatment and asked that her last name not be used, said she once lost $23,000 in a single day.
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 met a reporter at the Commerce Casino, where she spent numerous nights before she quit gambling in April 2000.
“Ohhh, I love it,” she whispered, looking away from the pai gow poker tables. “You can feel that old passion. The money is there for the taking.”
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.”
Lee’s family has broken gambling’s grip. He’s continuing his treatment, and his only son doesn’t gamble. But Lee can still taste the shame his father felt at being sold like a commodity. It was Lee’s mother who told him of his father’s tragic childhood.
And he knows that gambling almost brought him the same fate. For years, his parents struggled to cope with the effects of what Lee now recognizes as his father’s habit. When Lee was only 3, they considered selling him to an elderly Chinatown couple, planning to disguise the transaction as an adoption.
Lee’s father finally decided that he loved his son too much to part with him.