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Gambling Seen as No-Win Situation for Some Asians

Community leaders and social workers are putting pressure on casinos and legislators to help those who may be addicted face their problem.

January 16, 2006|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

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."

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