A still shot of the town hall Facebook live video from the office of Senator Jessica Ramos.

As Mets owner Steve Cohen’s proposal to build a casino and entertainment complex at Citi Field is in limbo, some community advocates are questioning whether the harms outweigh the benefits. You may remember tense moments during the February casino town hall when two different residents questioned the casino’s proximity to Flushing’s Asian American community, saying members of the community “tend to gamble a lot.” Some attendees cheered in agreement and others booed at the comments. 

One of Cohen’s staffers, who is of East Asian descent, found the generalization harmful, saying, “I grew up in Las Vegas, but I don’t even know how to gamble … that’s a little offensive and very stereotyped.”

On the other hand, another speaker of East Asian descent, Huanjie Li, was celebrated for bringing up the issue of problem gambling in the Asian American community. 

She later told Epicenter NYC she wondered how many of the people doing the booing were of East Asian descent or familiar with the community’s history with problem gambling. 

“If you really want to help our community, sure, you can be more sensitive in addressing the stereotype of Asian gambling,” said Li, who’s the organizer & community engagement manager at MinKwon Center for Community Action. “But also do not negate our actual concerns, and actually listen to us rather than just blatantly booing.”

The diversity in both perspectives within the East Asian community and in how these perspectives are received by people outside the community underscores just how complex the conversation is. 

When Epicenter NYC spoke with three experts, we asked how concerned community members could discuss this issue without resorting to stereotypes about the “Asian problem gambler.” They unanimously suggested reframing the problem to pull the onus away from Asian American communities and toward the well-documented targeting of Asian Americans by casinos.

Epicenter NYC dug into these complex issues of targeting and stereotyping by casinos. We also delved into whether a casino near low-income areas with a large Asian American population would worsen existing problems. We emailed and called Cohen’s team for comment but did not get a response at the time of publication.

Where does the stereotype of the “Asian problem gambler” come from?

The stereotype of the “Asian problem gambler” stems from the first wave of Asian migration to the United States, Asian American studies experts say. 

“It’s grounded in very racist roots,” said Yi-Ling Tan, a program manager at New York University Langone Health. “It is a form of othering. Throughout history, if you look at certain historical texts, Western powers have perpetuated this myth that a lot of Asians are easily addicted or have addictive behaviors. … It was used as a tool for colonization.”

Yi-Ling Tan, program manager at NYU Langone Health. Ben Hires, CEO of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, and Huanjie Li, organizer and community engagement manager at MinKwon Center for Community Action. Credit: Photos courtesy of Tan, Hires and Li.

Tan says this myth wasn’t limited to gambling. White Westerners also depicted Asians as opium addicts, for instance. They would wield these myths to rationalize colonizing these people of supposedly weak moral character, she says. 

“It is easy to see how the myth of the Asian gambler arose in the first place and then perhaps through popular media has been cemented,” Tan said. 

From the mid-1800s until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, white Californians sought Chinese migrants to build the transcontinental railroad, mine for gold, and clear wildlands.

Employers in California saw Chinese migrants as nothing more than a cheap, temporary source of labor they could import. They discouraged Chinese men from bringing their wives or family. They worked for long hours for small wages. They also faced anti-Chinese sentiment and violence from white laborers (some Irish immigrants, for example, blamed the newer migrants for their high unemployment rates and low wages).

Scholars say that under this hostility and with few social opportunities, some Chinese laborers found entertainment in gambling. They played games like mah-jongg, fan-tan, and baakgapbiu, a game that is similar to the card game keno. They also gambled with dice and dominoes.  

“Gambling and card games were what the men did,” said Ben Hires, CEO of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center (BCNC). “They worked all day, and then they had nothing to do, they had no families, they couldn’t go down to the local saloon because they were isolated and segregated.” 

How do the factors for gambling behaviors compare then and now?

Hires draws parallels between the past and current needs his team sees in the Chinatown residents they serve. Low-wage and limited-English Chinese immigrants in Boston are more likely to be attracted to gambling, according to a 2019 study BCNC co-led. 

Critics say the use of the color red in casino design is intentional. Credit: Thomas Habr

The reasons are systemic: a lack of access to services including adequate housing, education, language and healthcare. The study found community members turn to casinos and gambling to fill the void in these gaps. 

But the experiences of Boston’s Chinatown residents only reflect one Asian immigrant community. When BCNC co-led a 2022 study, they interviewed Cambodian, Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese immigrant communities in the Greater Boston area. Researchers found similar reported loneliness and access issues in low-income, working-class residents across other Asian ethnic groups. 65% of participants mentioned social aspects as factors behind Asian gambling behavior. 

In interviews done from February to April 2021 — amid a national spike in anti-Asian hate crimes — they found racism and discrimination also made communities more vulnerable to casino gambling behaviors.   

“What is juxtaposed is partly the sinister targeted marketing that casinos initiate, as well as their savvy understanding that with this particular group of people, there’s an opportunity to engage them into the casino,” Hires said. 

“We — [speaking] as a casino — can make this a welcoming place,” he said. “We can make them feel like a king or queen. We can send a nice air-conditioned bus that’s free. We can give them free incentives. We have many staff that speak their language.”

There’s another parallel between past and modern gambling behaviors in Asian immigrant communities. In the 1800s, gambling was more attractive than other pastimes as a possible relief for poverty. “Even at that time, it was another way for them to supplement their income because they came to the United States to work in these fields and on the railway to make money to send back to their families,” Hires said. 

He likens it to the modern practice where older Asian immigrants ride buses, strategically placed in Chinatown, to casinos to collect and resell $45 slot machine vouchers, as first reported by WABC-TV. In BCNC’s 2022 study, 58% of participants said they gambled in part to earn quick or easy money.

“There’s not really too much of a difference in how those immigrants were treated then to how immigrants are, in a lot of ways, treated today, when you look at Chinatowns or ethnic enclaves and how gambling can become an issue,” Hires said.

In New York City, people of Chinese descent make up the majority of Asian American residents. And nearly 60% of Chinese New Yorkers don’t speak English at home, according to a 2022 report by the Asian American Federation.  

Like the first Chinese migrants in the U.S., “we’ve heard stories of restaurant workers who work ‘til like 10 or 11 at night,” Tan said. “When you come out, when you’re looking for recreational opportunities, there isn’t a lot, first of all, at night and in a language that you’re comfortable with.”

The exception is casinos with their free food, drinks, and strategic bussing.  

How does casino marketing target Asian Americans?

For many Asian immigrants, legalized gambling isn’t available in their country of origin. When it is, the cost is prohibitive for most local residents, says Tan.

That doesn’t mean they’ve never been exposed to gambling, she said. It’s common for East Asian families and friends to play mah-jongg or cards, she says. 

But it’s important to distinguish between gambling as a fun social activity and problem gambling, Tan says. 

“There’s some East Asian cultural norms and values that I think have been used to perpetuate the stereotype,” she said. “There are aspects of Asian culture that may lend itself more to gambling, such as luck or superstition, the belief in numerology — for example, eight is a lucky number — that may reinforce some gambling behaviors.”

Hires says that while luck and good fortune have been part of Asian culture historically, incorporating cultural aspects isn’t bringing Asian Americans into casinos. What’s really doing that is strategic bussing from ethnic enclaves, free perks, and casino staffers who speak their language.

In addition to all of that, some of those games are explicitly racist in their use of images and stereotypical names, Hires says. 

Strategic bussing is one way that casinos target some Asian immigrant communities. Credit: Hobi industri

Still, “when you have all these factors together, I don’t think it’s a surprise that you see rates of problem gambling higher in Asian American communities,” Tan said. “It’s not because of any innate cultural traits; it’s mostly because they’ve been targeted.”

You don’t have to look farther than upstate New York to see these casino marketing ploys live, Tan says. At the Resorts World Catskills casino, everything there is red. In Chinese culture, red is the color of celebration and good fortune. And Tan says they have table games that are popular with gamblers of East Asian descent. 

We reached out to The Resorts World Catskills for comment but did not hear back at the time of publication.

Casino design is just the tip of the iceberg. Marketing is strategic  — starting from the focus on Asian American celebrities in campaigns. 

“I’ve heard of friends who would go to casinos Upstate, not to gamble but to see a Chinese pop star or something,” Tan said. Li spots Chinese-language ads while reading the daily paper. She says ads from Mets owner Steve Cohen’s team make big-print promises like Metropolitan Park “acres of opportunities” but don’t mention a casino. 

What does the data say about this equity issue? 

There’s not enough data to tell whether casinos worsen problem gambling in Asian American communities, Tan says. Some research suggests it might be a problem on college campuses. But studies on college students don’t reflect the experiences of older Asian adults who are most affected by problem gambling in the city. 

Stigma is another obstacle in gathering enough data. 

“Problem gambling, [like] mental health or domestic violence, you don’t talk about it openly,” Hires said. “It’s not like you can put a poster out and say, ‘hey, sign up for this problem gambling research project’ and you have hundreds of people who are gonna say, ‘yeah. I’m happy to talk to you about our dirty secrets or the problems in our family.’”

Despite the lack of data, especially for older Asian immigrants, “we can look to other communities, too, for answers,” including groups from the BCNC study, Tan said. 

Slot machines in a casino. Credit: Carl Raw

How do communities address this issue?  

For the BCNC team, what emerged was a mindset of “research is good, but what we really want to see is resources towards mitigating harm,” Hires said. 

One of the initiatives they launched was programming to counteract the casinos’ lure, he says. That includes activities like karaoke, ping-pong, dance, and social teas. 

“What our initiative, with our partners, does is a drop in the ocean,” Hires said. “The casinos open 24 hours a day. The buses run every half an hour. We’re just a nonprofit — there’s no way we can compete with that, we can’t be open all night.”

But they’re playing the long game, he says. 

“Not everybody who comes [to programming] has chosen this versus going to the casino or maybe has problem gambling,” Hires said. “But the strategy is, more people say, ‘hey, what about this?’ or invite somebody else.” 

Their family-centered approach works well in Asian communities, he says. It addresses a need that harkens back to the first wave of Asian migrants: in Chinese culture, family and home are synonymous, scholars say; they share the same character in the Chinese language. 

“It’s not just the gambler who’s hurt; it’s the whole family,” Hires said. “So the strategy is helping the family member and then, in collaboration with them, trying to address the person who’s addicted, getting them support.” 

For solutions closer to home, it’s still tough to figure out without good data, Tan says. While she’s not necessarily against a casino in Queens, which some advocates say could bring jobs to the community, “history has suggested that this will be a problem.” 

Meanwhile, public health experts suggest investing more directly in the community. This means better funding for community organizations and programs that serve Asian Americans. It means making more recreational alternatives to casino gambling that work for ethnic enclaves like Flushing. It also means bringing in more people who speak their language and are familiar with their culture. This can look like hiring and training more bilingual and bicultural counselors in community health sites, researchers say. 

But changing Asian adult immigrants’ stigma around mental health is not something that can be done so easily by investing more resources, Li says. She also maintains that, due to the proposed casino’s proximity to the community, no amount of culturally sensitive counseling or addiction prevention services can “undo the catastrophic direct harm caused by this.”

“We lack the healthy avenue, and also the proper mental health education, to make our lives fulfilled,” Li said. “We lack that kind of meaning, we lack that kind of connection. That’s why it makes it so easy for us to turn to gambling. [With the casino], there’s a lot at stake.”

If you or someone you know is affected by problem gambling, you can find available resources at the New York Council on Problem Gambling here. You can also reach out to community organizations like the MinKwon Center for Community Action, which focuses on low-income Asian immigrants in New York City and New Jersey. 

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