It’s nearly 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and a 72-year-old grandmother is saddled up to one of Pechanga Resort & Casino’s high-limit blackjack tables.
The dealer points her way, saying: “She’s a Vietnamese superstar, huh.”
The diminutive woman from Westminster is indeed known among the Temecula casino’s patrons for her prowess at blackjack. That information, however, must stay within the walls of Pechanga because she couldn’t bear it if her husband and children found out about her secret addiction.
She brushes off an interview request, making it clear she wants to concentrate on the game.
Yet while the older woman is tight-lipped, her 50-year-old compatriot, Thanh Trần, is more than willing to share her stories. For Trần, gambling is a family affair.
She laughs: “The whole family, top to bottom, gambles. My husband’s the king.”
Each of Trần’s five kids gambles with her, including her 17-year-old son, who has never been asked about his age. Two of her children are unemployed, one is a thief and her daughter recently left her husband.
“Mẹ chịu chơi, con cũng phải chơi chịu thôi,” Trần jokes, using Vietnamese wordplay to say that if mom’s willing to play, her kids have no choice but to play as well.
Asians and Gambling
Gambling rates among Asians are higher than those of any other ethnicity in the United States, according to psychiatrist Dr. Tim Fong, co-director of UCLA’s Gambling Studies Program.
“We did a survey a few years back, and at any given time, 35 percent of people in the casinos we visited were Asians,” even though Asians constitute only 14 percent of the state’s population, Fong said.
In a news report, a Pechanga official estimated that 50 percent of its clientele is Asian, though Jacob Mejia, the casino’s director of public affairs, told Voice of OC that information regarding Asian patrons is proprietary and must remain confidential.
Fong said gambling rates are highest among Chinese, followed by Koreans and Filipinos. Orange County’s largest Asian community, the Vietnamese, constitute another significant percentage, according to Fong. But gamblers of all backgrounds pay dearly for their habits, Fong said.
“At the severe end, we’re talking permanent damage to families: divorce, abuse, financial devastation and generational debt,” said Fong.
Ellen Ahn, executive director of Korean Community Services in Buena Park, said she regularly sees the ruinous effects of gambling on the people she serves.
“Gambling is by far the addiction of choice after tobacco or alcohol,” Ahn said. “I would say it’s a much bigger issue than drug abuse when it comes to destroying families and disrupting lives.”
Gambling among elderly Asians is also a concern, according to Dr. Clayton Chau, a psychiatrist and CalOptima official. Gambling is sometimes a response to boredom and lack of family attention, he said.
“We know that the incidence of gambling issues in the Asian community is quite high, especially if you have older seniors suffering from depression and loneliness,” Chau explained.
A Dangerous Mix of Culture and Poverty
Asians who are fighting gambling addiction are doing battle with both the harsh realities of modern life and centuries of tradition.
“Whether it’s Mahjong cubes in the Chinese community or flower cards in the Korean community, gambling is deeply rooted in Asian communities,” Ahn said. Fong agreed, saying that gambling is part of the Chinese New Year, weddings and other festive occasions.
But he also said that among Asian immigrants, gambling can be a response to poverty and one of the few choices available for entertainment and better earnings.
“Imagine someone coming over to the U.S. and not speaking any English, living in an apartment with 10 other people, working all night in a restaurant. What are you going to do on days off? Get together en masse to a casino and try to double up your earnings,” Fong said.
Playing for profits and not just amusement was the goal for Trần, the mother of five: “I go to win money. What’s the point in going just for fun?”
Trần refused to disclose the substantial amount of gambling debt she has accumulated.
“Cháy tuối” is the Vietnamese euphemism for Trần’s disastrous approach to gambling, drawing a comparison between repeated gambling losses to pockets having been burned so that they can’t hold money.
A Lucrative Opportunity
Casinos are well-positioned to profit from the gambling habits of Asians, luring and retaining customers like Trần.
Bamboo, Pechanga’s new Asian restaurant reported to cost $2.4 million, serves Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese fare, listed in the appropriate language on the menu.
Tailoring its entertainment schedule to patrons like Trần, who gamble during the day and attend shows at night, Pechanga consistently books popular Asian shows and artists. “Mua Ha Ruc Ro,” a popular Vietnamese live music show, made a recent run at the casino.
Also, the celebrity host of “Paris by Night,” another Vietnamese live music show, was recently seen playing the slot machines at Pechanga, much to the excitement of fans like Trần. Byun Jin Sub, a popular Korean ballad singer, performed at the casino in July.
Laughing Buddhas, golden toads and fu dogs, traditional Chinese symbols of good luck and prosperity, greet gamblers at the entrance to Pechanga’s high-limit blackjack tables.
Pechanga and other casinos send shuttles that pick up and return gamblers from a variety of locations in Orange County, often at no cost, with particular emphasis on Asian-populated areas such as Buena Park, Garden Grove and Westminster.
As early as 8 a.m. on a recent morning in the parking lots of the Asian Garden Mall and the Saigon City Market in Little Saigon, middle-aged Vietnamese men and women awaited shuttles for Pechanga, Harrah’s Rincon and Valley View Casino.
For one woman, who also declined to give her name, her casino trips serve as a retreat from the stresses of work and insomnia. Her casino routine consists of sightseeing and playing the penny machines. Another woman mentioned that she only goes to casinos out of boredom and never brings more than $20.
As a man parked his Mercedes-Benz convertible and ran off to catch the bus for Harrah’s Rincon, another woman, Tuyết, intimated a more ominous picture of the connection between Vietnamese and gambling.
“You can tell those who are addicted to gambling,” she said. “Most people, generally older folks, only go to relax. But some lose everything.”
‘All I Do Is Play’
Dűng Nguyễn, a 46-year-old Vietnamese man with an affinity for the roulette tables, personifies gambling’s darker side. Although he insisted he only plays for fun and that he sometimes wins, his haggard appearance suggested that his luck and his pockets have been burned repeatedly.
Part of the wave of “boat people” that immigrated to the U.S. in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, Nguyễn came to the states when he was 9 with his uncle. His father — an American paratrooper instructor for the South Vietnamese 81st Airborne Rangers — left Vietnam three years earlier.
Nguyễn, whose mother remains in Vietnam, has had a life of hard knocks since his emigration. He married, had a daughter and divorced, all before the age of 20. He has been estranged from his wife and daughter for more than 25 years and lost his uncle, his only family here, to cancer.
His friends, who according to Nguyễnhim all hold lucrative construction jobs, sometimes go to casinos with him, but only during weekends on account of their work. On the other hand, Nguyễn boards the Asian Garden Mall shuttle to Pechanga seven days a week.
“All I do is play, really,” he said.
When he isn’t gambling, Nguyễn occasionally works odd jobs or oversees his friends’ construction projects. Sometimes, instead of employing him, his friends simply give him small amounts of money to gamble. He lives with his divorced friend and his friend’s father.
Despite his hard luck, Nguyễn remains nonchalant.
“It’s just life,” he said.
Phuc Pham is a fourth-year literary journalism major at UC Irvine.