Opinion: Asian Kiwis & Gambling

As Asia Media Centre's Lee Seabrook-Suckling recalls his grandfather's gambling problem, he takes a wider look at why Asian Kiwis are susceptible to problem gambling. 

Growing up as a young child in Canterbury, I have fond memories of visiting my grandfather, who was Chinese, at his large rural homestead. “Grandad is rich!”, my brothers and I used to muse on the tree-lined drive into his property.  

By the time Grandad died when I was age 12, he was living in a caravan park. His wife, my step-grandmother, had left him and returned to the Philippines as their relationship had been torn apartThe reason he went from extravagant riches to lonely rags? Like many other Asian Kiwis, he was a gambler.  

During the first Covid-19 lockdown in New Zealand, 49.8 percent of New Zealanders of Asian descent engaged in online gambling. According to a poll by Asian Family Servicesthis is significantly higher than the general national average - which is only 30.2 percent.  

Sixty-six percent of Asians in New Zealand have participated in gambling in the last 12 months. The most likely activities are buying a Lotto, Strike, or Powerball ticket. From flashy casinos to online poker, gambling comes with a dopamine hit and is accompanied by a satisfying feeling of being lucky improving one’s quality of life through monetary gain.  

Local studies have found Asian communities in New Zealand are vulnerable to gambling addiction for cultural reasons. According to research by University of Auckland, Asian people are susceptible gamblers because of their cultural beliefs and values in superstition and luck”. As the Chinese have these notions well-embedded in their culture, they are the most predisposed group of all Asian ethnicities.  

The Chinese have a saying: “If you don’t gamble, you don’t know how lucky you are”. This references the compulsive and addictive nature of gambling and how entwined games such as mahjong, poker, blackjack, and dice games are with Chinese values of luck, numerology, fate, and fortune. According to Psychology Today, winning (and, thus, losing) in Chinese culture comes with a heavier sense of identification than in the West and can be very tied up with one’s sense of self.  

Researcher Andrew Zhu, who conducted the Asian Family Services poll, says, “in most Asian countries, lottery is promoted as a charitable act (as well as in New Zealand). Among the 20 people interviewed, none of them classified themselves as a gambler and they believed buying the lottery was a way to give back to the community, however ‘not buying it’, means missing the opportunity to win a superior lifestyle”. In New Zealand, Zhu’s research has found the typical Asian gambler is a Chinese woman over 50, who is retired, and has been in the country for less than a year. 

For my grandfather, a Chinese-Kiwi retiree in his 60s, any type of gambling would do. The Christchurch Casino has the same lure as the Addington Raceway and the Lotto counter at New World. Every week until he died, I recall him frequenting all three.  

Being a recent migrant is a driver for gambling among Asians who move to Western countries. This likely owes to the sense of community that casinos and pubs/clubs can provide. Gambling can easily become a form of socialisation for those who seek social inclusion, and, as Psychology Today notes, casinos “have capitalised on this by marketing aggressively to Asians — especially Asian immigrants — by offering Asian entertainers, ethnic food, free transportation, and even card dealers who speak Asian languages.”  

Tendencies towards gambling aren’t just a Chinese phenomenon within the Asian context. In Japan, it’s estimated 3.2 million people are addicted to some form of gambling – the popular form called “pachinko”. This arcade form of gambling is similar to the Western “slot machines” style of gambling, and while technically illegal, there are over 12,000 pachinko parlours across Japan which don’t have to form to criminal laws because of their cultural value.  

Illegal casinos are extremely popular in Thailand - despite very strict laws against it. A 2019 report found 57 percent of Thais gamble and the youngest gambler interviewed was seven years old. In the United States, refugees from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam have an astonishing pathological gambling prevalence rate of 59 percent in this South Eastern populationWhy? According to gambling researcher Timothy Fong of UCLA, gambling lures in people from lower socio-economic groups with “an opportunity out of poverty”.  

There’s an ecological approach to reducing problem gambling and addiction in Asian Kiwi communities, University of Auckland researchers Amritha Sobrun-Maharaj and Fiona Rossen believe. “Asian culture has strengths that can be protective against gambling and should be utilised,” they explainThese strengths lie in values such as family connectedness and respect, spirituality and religion, the stigma attached to gambling, as well as the need to save face.”  

Indeed, Sobrun-Maharaj and Rossen say, solutions lie in normalising help-seeking (seeking help for mental health is not the norm in Asian societies) by changing perceptions around talking about addiction. I know if my grandfather were alive today, he would not admit to his obvious addiction, because that is not something a Chinese-Kiwi family from the South Island does.  

Help-seeking, therefore, should involve providing culturally appropriate services, creating awareness about problem gambling behaviours, enhancing support for reconstructing families (including extended families), and teaching alternate ways of stress relief. Moreover, important in tackling this issue are more appropriate social spaces for Asiapeople (especially recent migrants) when they’re in the early stages of integration into New Zealand society.  

- Asia Media Centre