Asian Community Backs Outreach to Gambling Addicts

April 21, 2006

Ilene Lelchuk, Chronicle Staff Writer

Sunday, April 8, 2001



Many Chinese Americans grow up with the click-clack of ivory mah-jongg tiles being played on a kitchen table or a park bench, the background noise that raised generations.

Mostly, the game similar to gin rummy is a diversion. Sometimes you play for money. And sometimes the stakes are so high that players are ruined financially.

For the first time, San Francisco's Chinese American community is addressing a chronic private problem very publicly. The NICOS Chinese Health Coalition, a partnership of 30 social service agencies, has responded to community concerns by launching a media blitz and counseling campaign to educate residents about compulsive gambling and how it tears families apart.

Experts say gambling is pervasive among Asian cultures, although rarely acknowledged or discussed as a problem until recently. In San Jose, for example, Vietnamese anti-gambling activists last year fueled an effort to shut down cardrooms because of rampant addiction.

But NICOS in San Francisco may be the first organization to wage a massive campaign targeting the gamblers themselves.

The project, paid for in part by the San Francisco Public Health Department,

includes 30 gambling addiction counselors and five months of newspaper, radio and television advertisements. The ads began appearing in February in Chinese language media, featuring the slogan "When one person is addicted to gambling, the whole family suffers."

The black-and-white ads show a hand holding playing cards, a lottery ticket and a pai-gow domino. Below it, a skeletal hand holds the same cards and lottery ticket, now singed, and a deteriorating family photo.

"It plays to Chinese American family values," said NICOS Executive Director Kent Woo.


The campaign urges gamblers and their families to call a new counseling hot line, (888) 968-7888, a phone number that Woo said he intentionally packed with eights, a lucky number in Chinese culture. The Chinese word for eight is baat, which sounds like the word for prosperity, faat.

Woo is thrilled — and surprised — by the campaign's early success.

"We got more than 50 phone calls from problem gamblers and their family members within the first month," he said. "And we're continuing to get two to three calls a day, which is actually phenomenal because many Asian Americans don't believe in counseling."

Woo was just as surprised in 1997 when NICOS's health survey of 1,808 adults of Chinese descent revealed that nearly 70 percent considered gambling one of the community's top troubles. Although social agencies have long been aware of the problem, the survey marked the first time the traditionally reticent community seemed willing to discuss it.

The NICOS campaign aims to gently break down cultural barriers that keep gamblers from seeking help, said Dr. Eddie Chiu, a clinical psychologist who oversees the new hot line.

"People might think it's just a bad behavior," Chiu said. "Many Chinese and others don't think it's a mental or psychological problem. And if you try to say it's a mental problem, you scare people."

Hot line callers admit problems with mah-jongg, pai-gow, sports betting and day trading before the stock market started to sour.

They lost their savings, their spouses and families because they wagered on the Internet, at racetracks, underground card rooms in San Francisco, casinos in Reno and nearby Indian reservations, and card clubs in San Bruno, Emeryville and San Jose, most of which have separate tables for Asian games and host promotional events around Asian holidays such as Chinese New Year.


"Gambling is so much a part of our culture that a lot of people take it as an activity rather than view it as gambling," said Woo, a San Francisco native who remembers growing up watching adults play mah-jongg for money during birthday parties and other celebrations.

Former gambler Christine Uong of San Francisco said gambling "is in our blood," a phrase frequently said by Asian Americans trying to explain why so many flood the card clubs and casinos.

"It is in the culture," said Uong, 47, who was born in China and grew up in Vietnam. "In the old days in China, they played the dice and they counted the sticks. Those games have been around for ages before poker or slot machines. They were games that children played. And when you grew up, you started playing with money."

For Uong, she gambled at the casinos and the horse tracks, beting up to $10, 000 a day.

But she lost everything, several times over, as she quit one form of gambling only to start another. She said she finally stopped 10 years ago.

"It's the feeling, the excitement," Uong said. "Outsiders don't understand how it feels when you buy a ticket and you're looking at a horse race . . .

"But you really, really have to point this out. The money and excitement buy a one-minute high," she stressed. "But the disappointment and pain hurt 100 times more than the high."


The pain can pervade a community, as seen by reports of gambling-related domestic violence and gang activity.

"Gang members basically run the card rooms and provide protection and take money from the people who are playing," said San Francisco police Inspector Harry Pearson, with the vice squad's gambling detail. The city has no legal card rooms.

Last year, the FBI raided 16 locations in Chinatown and Daly City and arrested 15 people, many of whom were identified as members of the Jackson Street Boys, a dominant Chinatown gang, on suspicion of murder and extortion in connection with legal card clubs in the Bay Area.

And in San Jose, the district attorney's office indicted 55 people on loansharking, selling drugs and other charges last year following an investigation of the Bay 101 card club. Deputy District Attorney Charles Constantinides said witnesses in the case brought to light exactly how gambling has wrecked lives in San Jose, where the Bay Area's largest concentration of Southeast Asians live.

"Our focus did not start out on Asians, but it ended that way because most of the financial business at Bay 101 and Garden City (another San Jose card club) is Asian," Constantinides said.

Nationwide, about 2 million adults are pathological gamblers and another 3 million adults should be considered problem gamblers, according to a 1999 report to the National Gambling Impact Study Commission.

In San Francisco, Woo is trying to keep his gambling education and counseling program alive through next year. NICOS has relied on annual grants of $50,000 to $100,000 from the mayor and Board of Supervisors for the last three years.

Woo said he is lobbying for next year's installment, and he is asking the district attorney to join the effort.

"As one counselor said, gambling is to our community what alcohol and drug abuse is to other communities," Woo said.

E-mail Ilene Lelchuk at

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