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Gambling & the Chinese Community: social interaction or destructive habit?

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It is said that the Chinese are the biggest gamblers in the world and that gambling is a normal feature of life which is regarded as 'acceptable'. It is also said that no other Asian people are as fond of gambling as the Chinese. Yes, I can understand if you happen to be Chinese reading this article, you may want to object to this proposition. However, most Chinese people agree that gambling is deeply embedded in their culture and is a normal form of social interaction.

For example, it is not unusual for mah-jong and card games to be played at wedding receptions and parties etc. It is also believed that mah-jong helps to keep one's mind alert as one age. As I turned 60 last year, I have started playing mah-jong once a month with this therapy in mind! However, this is for health benefit and not for money!

As the Chinese saying goes: "a little gambling can be pleasurable but too much can ruin your brain". So how do we define pleasurable gaming and 'problem' gambling? People who take part in pleasurable gaming are not usually addicted to it, whereas problem gambling is barely tolerated by the gambler's family and friends, because the addiction can gradually turn to become the most destructive of all addictions, leading to increased risk of severe health problems, debt, unemployment, divorce, and, even imprisonment.

Up till the 1970s, gambling dens and clan associations merged as a meeting place and first point of contact for lots of Chinese people in this country who are not fluent or literate in the English language. Inevitably, underground gambling of this kind brought with it loan sharks and gang fighting. Alternative gambling places, eg, legitimate bookies and casinos, gradually created a new gambling environment amongst the Chinese community. When you ask Chinese people in the UK why they go to the casino or betting office, they will tell you that this is the 'normal' lifestyle amongst the people who work in the catering industry. They will try to convince you that their life is boring without any meaningful thing to do at their breaks during the day, and when they finish work in the small hours of the morning, casinos are among the few places that are open where they can just walk in and find some 'excitement', meet their mates and enjoy free refreshments. Casinos are a place that is cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Years ago when internet and mobile communication were not so common, users were even able to make free long distance phone calls from casinos to their friends and families abroad during Chinese New Year, or enjoy a complimentary steak dinner. All these were, of course, gimmicks to attract people to go to the casino in the first place. Once they put their foot through the door, obviously they are going to start placing a few bets.

Nowadays it is not unheard of to find students from mainland China carrying a suitcase of cash into a casino. It is also not uncommon for ordinary Chinese people who do not lead isolated lives or work anti-social hours to be tempted by different gimmicks, for example, £10 betting gift vouchers that allow them play a few games. Sounds good if you are lucky and win as this will be surprise earnings for the day. If you lose, well, too bad, you only have yourself to blame. You should not have been greedy in the first place!

Unfortunately, betting does not always stop, whether one wins or loses. Once they finish using their free vouchers, people start to gamble with their own money. This is when they fall into the trap, and betting starts to become compulsive and problematic. When you are winning, you want to win more, and when you are losing, the determination to win back your losses is unstoppable. When these psychological forces play their tricks, it is inevitable that people begin to get hooked. Someone said that in any sort of gambling, the ultimate winner is always the "host" and no one else. In gambling terms, the "host" is the owner of the gambling establishment.

I was first introduced to the problem of the gambling culture amongst Chinese people in this country through my experience working with the community.

Case One:

One afternoon in 1989, I was working at the Community Centre when I received a phone call from Social Services seeking help with interpreting for a Chinese lady who was held due to neglect for her children. She had left her children, aged 9 and 11 locked in their council flat on their own between 11pm and 4am. The neighbours found the lady's movements concerning, and raised the alarm. Apparently, the lady went to Chinatown to gamble almost every night while she left her kids asleep unattended.

Case Two:

Mr X in his 70s came to the UK 40 years ago to work in the catering industry. He had a loving family until fifteen years ago – his family has disowned him since then. The reason? Compulsive gambling. Mr X is now down and out and lives on his own in a sparsely furnished council flat.

Case Three:

Mrs A owned four restaurants in the UK: two in London, two in Birmingham. Due to her interest in gambling, she managed to gamble away one restaurant in one night. Eventually, she lost all her restaurants to gambling and now lives on her own in a council flat. Sadly this has not deterred her from gambling although the scale has obviously gone down.

I can go on about the devastation caused by compulsive gambling. So, should we just accept it as simply a form of social interaction and regard it as a way of life? As a community worker, I am disturbed by this attitude and feel strongly that the issue should be openly addressed.

The subject of Chinese gambling culture has, in fact, been studied by different groups/organisations over the years and resources have also provided to help compulsive gamblers and their families overcome their problems. Sadly, my colleagues and I do not think the situation has become any better. Written evidence of the London Chinatown gambling situation can be found in the Inquiry into the Gambling Act 2005. The Inquiry was conducted by the House of Commons Culture Media and Sport Committee in 2011 and its Report was published in 2012. Various reports also appeared in the British media highlighting the problems of increased gambling houses in London Chinatown. Similar concern was echoed by various community leaders, volunteers and professionals in the Chinese community who try to provide help, be it in advice/information or clinical support. They seem to be of the same opinion, namely that the situation is bleak and the scale of gambling will remain an on-going issue in that part of town which is unlikely to be tackled, let alone reduced. If that is the case, gambling is not social interaction, but destructive to society.

So, as a community worker, how do I see the problems being dealt with? I am sure there are lots of ways to depress the gambling culture, one of which is to educate the Chinese community as to how injurious 'problem gambling' can be. Even though gambling is not illegal in this country, one thing I am clear about is not to accept donations from gambling establishments. We cannot on the one hand condemn the damage gambling activities can bring to our community while, on the other hand, rub shoulders with gambling houses and accept their generosity. Community centres have to remember one of their roles is to protect and provide help to the vulnerable who, in this context, are the gamblers and those directly and indirectly affected by problem gambling.

By Katy Tse Blair, CEO, Islington Chinese Association.

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