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Chinatown residents fear lure of gaming

If you ask Siong Ho what he thinks about putting a casino at the Gallery mall next to Chinatown, he will tell you a story.

Siong Ho, who had a gambling problem in the past, thinks building a casino near Chinatown isn't a good idea since gambling is a problem in the Asian community. (Sarah J. Glover / Inquirer)
Siong Ho, who had a gambling problem in the past, thinks building a casino near Chinatown isn't a good idea since gambling is a problem in the Asian community. (Sarah J. Glover / Inquirer)Read more

If you ask Siong Ho what he thinks about putting a casino at the Gallery mall next to Chinatown, he will tell you a story.

It's about a factory owner in Malaysia who lost it all at the tables.

It's about how this millionaire had to sell everything and move to New York City to start over as a dishwasher.

It's about him.

Like many in Chinatown, Ho, 47, believes a casino at the Gallery is too close for comfort. Asians, he says, have a dangerous taste for gambling. He doesn't want his friends or employees to fall into the same trap he did.

"You think it's easy money," said Ho, a restaurant manager. "But it can kill you one day."

Foxwoods Casino wants to move its stalled casino project from the waterfront of South Philadelphia to the downtown retail and transit hub on Market Street. Mayor Nutter and Gov. Rendell support the idea.

But many in the Asian American community say a casino at the back door of Chinatown - a neighborhood of about 5,000 - will feed a gambling habit among Asians.

There is little national research on Asian gambling patterns in the United States. But in pockets of the country with proximity to gaming - Los Angeles, San Francisco, Connecticut - studies have uncovered problems.

"We are consistently seeing higher rates," said Nancy Petry, a psychologist and addiction specialist at the University of Connecticut. A survey she led of 96 Southeast Asian refugees in Connecticut, which has two casinos, found that 59 percent were pathological gamblers - gambling so much it harmed their lives.

"There is clearly something cultural about it," Petry said.

Maureen Garrity, a spokeswoman for Foxwoods, said the company would meet Chinatown representatives in the coming weeks to begin "listening to their concerns."

At the top of that list: the risk of gambling problems. "That will be like a bomb," said a 37-year-old immigrant from China who is battling a gambling addiction.

The man, who did not want his name used, said he started playing slots, poker and blackjack while in graduate school. He said he lost $150,000 over the years.

"To go to Atlantic City, you have to think about it a little bit," the man said. "But if it's in Chinatown, you can go every night."

Gambling carries no stigma for Asians. To the contrary, it's an activity woven into celebrations like weddings or holidays like New Years.

"It's not only acceptable behavior, it's expected in many ways," said Timothy Fong, a psychiatrist with the UCLA Gambling Studies Program.

Fong added that Asians are big believers in lucky numbers and translate that belief into gambling.

Casinos know this.

Across the country, operators are spending millions on marketing to Asians, including in Atlantic City. They are adding shows from Hong Kong and opening specialty Asian restaurants. Foxwoods has a Web site in Mandarin for its casino in Connecticut.

In Atlantic City, about 15 to 20 percent of revenues come from Asian gamblers, according to casino operators.

Asian customers would be drawn to a casino wherever it was located in Philadelphia. But the plan to put one on the edge of Chinatown has amplified debate over the social costs of gambling.

"It's like putting a bar at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting," said Debbie Wei, principal of the FACT Charter School, north of Chinatown at 11th and Callowhill Streets.

Wei said many of her students have parents with gambling problems. "It's not an occasional case here and there," she said. "It's frequent and serious enough to say this is a major issue that the community is facing."

A steep fall

For Siong Ho, gambling wasn't always an issue.

He and three partners ran three factories in Malaysia with 400 workers. They made plastic bags and bottles, and did well.

The oldest partner refused to allow the others to gamble. But when he died in 1988, the others went "crazy," Ho said.

They started driving to the Genting Highlands casino outside Kuala Lumpur. They played poker, roulette and blackjack for hours, sometimes days.

Ho said he could burn through $100,000 a day. Debts destroyed the partners. They had to sell the factories. Ho's wife left him. His brother, who was living in New York City, mailed him a plane ticket to get out of town. "He saved me," Ho said.

Ho worked at a New York restaurant as a dishwasher, a busboy, a waiter and finally a manager. A few years ago, when a friend opened a restaurant in Philadelphia, Ho went to work for him.

Ho, who asked that the restaurant not be identified, said a casino could be good for Chinatown's businesses and property values. But he worries about the waiter who gets off work at 1 a.m. and strolls to the Gallery to play slots.

"Very, very dangerous," he said.

3 percent seen at risk

No one has done a study of the prevalence of gambling among Philadelphians, let alone Asian residents.

But the city's Department of Behavioral Health estimates that based on national rates on gambling, about 31,000 people of all races here would qualify as problem or compulsive gamblers - roughly 3 percent of the adult population. (This compares to 9.7 percent of the U.S. adult population with alcohol dependence and abuse and 3.6 percent with drug dependence and abuse, the department said.)

Arthur C. Evans, the department's director, said he was "very concerned" about gambling's effect on Asians as well as other minorities in the city.

A national study by the Research Institute on Addictions in Buffalo found that Asians, African Americans and Hispanics had a prevalence of pathological gambling three times higher than that of whites.

"People are more concerned about the economic impact of casinos and the [impact on] the crime rate," Evans said. "But I rarely see people talking about the potential for problem gambling."

Garrity, the Foxwoods spokeswoman, said the company "provides gaming as a form of entertainment, but recognizes the potential for addiction and has taken steps to address problem gaming in both its patrons and its employees."

That includes a state-required plan for training employees - and for excluding patrons with problems.

Pennsylvania has set aside $1.5 million in casino revenues for a gambling hotline, treatment services, and training for casino employees.

Access to help already is a problem for Asians who don't speak English.

"Treatment of gambling addiction that is culturally competent is nonexistent in Philadelphia," said Philip Siu, founder of Chinatown Medical Services, the city's largest community health center for Asians.

Gamblers Anonymous, the best-known self-help group for compulsive gamblers, does not offer local meetings in Asian languages. The state-supported Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania hands out printed information on how to get help, but not in Asian languages.

Even if services were available, there is cultural resistance to seeking help.

"I try to educate my friends and use the word disease and talk to them about 12-step programs," said Helen Luu, a social worker for the Asian Behavioral Health program at Pennsylvania Hospital.

"They laugh."

Added Siu: "Problem gambling is not much of a taboo - until it ruins the family. And when it does, it's quiet."