On a recent midweek morning, a packed bus sped toward the glitz of Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Casinos. For $15 apiece, the almost exclusively Chinese passengers pocketed gambling coupons worth $65, and a round trip from Flushing, Queens to the East Coast’s self-proclaimed No. 1 entertainment haven for Asians.
Some passengers napped. Others watched Chinese television shows on built-in screens, eager for a break from late-night restaurant jobs in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Many were long retired and looking forward to the social release of table gaming. Almost all were recent immigrants and spoke little English.
On arrival, the bus emptied as glass doors opened to reveal swarming crowds on vast carpets. It was just before noon.
Each year, Mohegan receives over 1.2 million visits from Chinese patrons, according to Anthony Patrone, senior vice-president of marketing at Mohegan. A floor manager who preferred not to be named estimated that 30 percent to 35 percent of the casino’s business comes from the Chinese community.
The industry makes no secret of targeting the Chinese demographic. Many casinos devote entire departments to Asian marketing. Mohegan caters to the Chinese community through specifically tailored advertising, direct mail, the Internet, entertainment and specialized gaming.
“Chinese people feel we understand their specific needs and wants,” Patrone said.
“We’re sensitive to the culture, to the language, and they have a great time at Mohegan Sun,” he added.
Of the 28 mini-baccarat dealers bordering the Sunrise Square Asian food court, 18 were bilingual Chinese. On this particular morning, not a single patron at the mini-baccarat tables was non-Asian.
Some critics charge that the industry’s aggressive targeting of the Chinese community is predatory. In October residents of Philadelphia’s Chinatown successfully protested and halted the building of a casino they said would “change the character of the community, hurt business” and exacerbate gambling addiction in the community, according to an AP report published at the time. The Pennsylvania gaming board ultimately rejected the casino’s application.
“I think Asians are more at risk than other cultures of gambling addiction,” said Chien Chi Huang, the Asian community program manager of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling.
“Gambling is so ingrained in Chinese culture. We grow up watching our parents gambling,” Huang said.
“I think Asians are obsessed with fortune, with luck, and wealth,” she added.
And for Chinese immigrants, the risk is fitting, said Huang.
“The act of making a transition from their homeland to a foreign land, is itself a gamble. It plays into the concept of fulfilling the American dream,” she said.
But statistics on gambling addiction within the Chinese community are unclear and occasionally contradictory. While gambling addiction rates are reportedly higher in the nation’s Chinatowns than those of the general population, national and statewide surveys often report lower gambling rates among Chinese compared with those of other ethnicities. Experts speculate that the contradiction is due to language barriers that may deter immigrants from participating in such surveys. In 2004, psychiatrists at the University of Queensland found that Chinese are almost 50 percent more likely to suffer from gambling addiction that Caucasians.
And Timothy Fong, the director of UCLA’s Gambling Studies program, said that in a survey at a Los Angeles casino, 30 percent of patrons were Asian, compared with the 13 percent ratio of Asians in California’s population. The survey also found that one in three patrons at the casino met the criteria for gambling addiction, including uncontrollable thoughts about gambling, chasing losses and committing illegal activities to finance the habit.
One Mohegan patron who did not want to be named said that when he was unemployed last year, he came to the casino a few times a week. He said he knew people from the Chinese community who lost their homes, their restaurants and all their savings through gambling.
However, Fong warned against jumping to conclusions. “Everyone gambles,”he said.
“It’s an important part of African American culture, of Hispanic culture, and of white culture, so it’s premature to go out and say that Asians have this specific gambling gene that’s unique from other cultures. There are a lot of members of the community that don’t gamble, and don’t want to, and don’t want it there,” he said.
Many gamblers at Mohegan and other casinos only visit a few times a year. George Chin, a Chinese American who accompanies his mother to Mohegan, said problem gaming should be judged on a case-by-case scenario, citing the high percentage of Asians living in close proximity to the Connecticut casinos.
“For me, it’s just a diversion,” he said.
Huang said that the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling receives only two or three calls a month for assistance with gambling addiction, but these numbers fluctuate depending on how much money is spent on outreach and advertising.
Some experts speculate that Chinese gamblers may simply approach mental health issues differently, believing that determination and strength of character (or lack of either) will determine a person’s fate. In this way of thinking, a person who has succumbed to gambling problems is weak, or greedy, and incapable of kicking what many view as simply a bad habit. There is still great stigma attached to participating in therapy, Fong said. This reluctance may in part explain the higher rates of severe gambling addiction in the Chinese community.
“By the time Asians present for treatment for their gambling problems, their problems are much more severe than non-Asians,” Fong said.
“We need to change people’s perceptions,” Huang said.
“We need to frame the issue as a public health issue, rather than an individual moral issue,” he added.
Counselors have also observed that Chinese patients generally don’t like to participate in group psychotherapy, preferring to speak in private. Even so, counselors face major challenges acculturating Chinese patients to Western therapy.
“In the Western world, counselors are not there to tell you what to do,” Huang said.
“They’re there to work with you to help identify problems. Chinese patients get frustrated, and often don’t stick with it,” he said.
Although Gamblers Anonymous does not hold Chinese-language sessions, the number of bilingual therapists who are equipped to handle gambling addiction has increased in recent years. Huang is in the process of trying to start a Cantonese-language help group in Boston.
While many critics have pinned much of the blame on the casino industry, Fong said that the Chinese community should take greater responsibility in protecting its own. Many of these buses are run in conjunction with Chinatown-based bus companies, he said.
“Communities need to recognize that these buses are an operation and they need to put into place ways to protect their residents. These folks aren’t being forced on to these buses. People forget that. The buses wouldn’t be there if people weren’t getting on them,” said Fong.
Patrone, the VP of marketing at Mohegan, said that the casino offers Chinese-language assistance in the form of pamphlet literature and referrals to equipped counselors. “It’s important to us,” he said.
“We’re not interested in having problem gamers. But ultimately, it’s the individual’s responsibility to act and game responsibly,” he said.