SAN FRANCISCO — 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.