Gambling across borders

A blog about the productive life of risk

Discussing gambling at the Labour Conference

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As part of the Labour conference on Monday 23 September, Chinese for Labour organised a fringe event on gambling which has been a growing issue for the Chinese community over the last few years, especially with the opening of new betting shops in London’s Chinatown. Along with David Lammy, Tottenham MP, Rowenna Davies, PPC Southampton Itchen and Professor Jim Orford I was invited to speak about my understanding of the issue since I carried out a PhD about Chinese casino players in London. Here is the speech that I delivered on the day:

‘Today I’d like to argue that we’re not only seeing a proliferation of betting shops in Chinatown but a Macau-isation of London’s Chinatown and that this development is facilitated by a greater freedom for gambling venues to market their products since 2007.

At the same time as more betting shops have appeared in Chinatown, in Leicester Square just around the corner, the number of casinos has increased, with two new casinos opening in the last 6 years. However, what is important to stress is not just how many new casinos or betting shops have opened but how the experience of gambling in these venues has evolved under the new regulatory regime.

With deregulation, marketing campaigns of free Chinese buffet and Chinese New Year celebrations targeting Chinese customers have intensified and multiplied. The most obvious example is the way casinos can now introduce new types of games and how they have revived, for example, a Chinese game of the name of Pai Gow, which is offered at the Empire and the Hippodrome, to attract the Chinese clientele to their premises.

I’ve been doing research on gambling and risk-taking for 7 years. I did extensive research with Chinese casino gamblers in London’s Chinatown in 2007 and 2008. I am a social anthropologist which means that I do not do surveys, laboratory experiments or just interviews. My method of inquiry is immersion, living the daily lives of the communities I work within, in this case the Chinese community of London, do what they do, and see what affects their lives on a day-to-day basis from their perspectives. I speak Mandarin, I lived in China and researched the Chinese community of Vietnam before, so I had an appropriate set of tools to approach Chinese gamblers in London. For over a year, I was part of the casino scene in and around Chinatown, making friends and spending time with many Chinese gamblers. All of this gives me a unique perspective on how the changing gambling environment is impacting the Chinese community in London.

My research shows that we cannot blame so called Chinese culture for problem gambling in the Chinese community and that we also need to look at the gambling environments around us.

As an anthropologist I certainly won’t deny that some people from China or with Chinese roots love gambling. It is an important part of their culture and of how they relate with each other. However, I refuse to stigmatise the Chinese community as having gambling in their blood. I think such a stereotype is problematic as it assumes the problem lies with a culture and a migrant community; it distracts from a discussion about the role and responsibility of regulation, technology and the commercialisation of gambling.

Casinos near Chinatown purposely romanticise how their venues facilitate a community atmosphere for Chinese customers, the idea being that casinos are just another way to bring the community together. Although it is true that some Chinese gamblers do frequent casinos and betting shops to meet and socialise, it is dangerous and mistaken to liken commercial gambling venues to community centres.

First, many Chinese gamblers frequent them to avoid interacting with others and to enjoy solitude and anonymity. And certainly in the casino there is no social pressure to interact, on the contrary.

But most of all, gambling venues are commercial enterprises whose objective is to make profit. The commercial environment of the casino where odds are in favour of the house cannot be compared to a game of mahjong where the chances are equally favourable to all participants. Playing mahjong with members of a family, village or community centre takes place within prescribed social environments where money must be won and lost according to social etiquette.

As a Chinese girl described to me, when playing mahjong it is important to respect the people you’re playing with. When she played with a host she would be mindful not to win too much and would let her win. Neither could she systematically win against her dad. Losing against him would also allow her to give him some money without offending his pride. For her, it was important to abide to such social etiquette when playing mahjong. There is no such social etiquette in the casino which is purely about extracting profit, not about building and maintaining relationships.

Some of the Chinese gamblers I met, especially those who had recently come to the UK, often learnt the hard way that they could only lose in the long run by gambling in the casino or at a FOBT. Yuan Ting, a young Fujianese man in his early 30s who had moved to the UK in the hope of a better life had lost all of his savings and more when I met him in 2008. He felt terribly ashamed for not being able to send money back home as he had promised and for having to ask his family to pay off his debts. He had never seen a betting shop or a casino before coming to London, and therefore it was the first time he experienced what it was like to gamble in a commercial environment.

To conclude, saying that Chinese people have gambling in their blood is problematic in two ways. It shifts the blames to the Chinese community and away from the government and the industry. It also avoids a discussion of how regulatory, technological and commercial environment of gambling impacts the Chinese community. I’m very glad that Chinese for Labour is organising this meeting today as I think that helping the Chinese community and tackling problem gambling starts with addressing such questions in the public sphere and pushing these questions forward on the political agenda.’ 

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Written by Claire Loussouarn

October 16, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Posted in News

Tagged with , ,

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