Thoai Nguyen has been telling city officials for years now: The casino industry offers better language services for Asian immigrants than any other industry in Philadelphia. They have hired Vietnamese, Burmese, Butanese, Cambodian, Chinese and Japanese people to work on the casino floor. Meanwhile, the PennDOT drivers test only has Chinese (Mandarin), Korean and Vietnamese options, and only as of 2013. Nguyen says people chuckle when he tells them this. “I’m not joking,” he says. “You guys suck and [casinos] are awesome.”

Nguyen, the CEO of the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Coalition, Inc., has been fighting against what he sees as the casino industry’s economic mining of the low-income, recent refugee and immigrant communities in South Philadelphia. He primarily is concerned with the welfare of the Southeast Asian community, as this is his organization’s explicit mission— as well as the community he believes is the most stridently targeted by casinos.

Do casino really target Asians?

If you are looking for evidence that the casino industry targets Asian customers, look no further than the “Asian Pit” slated to be a prominent feature of the the new Live! Hotel and Casino planned to take up a 9-acre plot on Packer Avenue in South Philadelphia. Or look at this New York Times article from 2011 that shows that casinos expect a quarter of their revenue to come from Asian American gamblers.

A 2006 Los Angeles Times article found that while 3 percent of Americans are considered problem gamblers (gambling so routinely that they dip into their non-discretionary money), a 1999 poll 1999 poll of San Francisco’s Chinatown found 16 percent of residents self-described as problem gamblers, and 70 percent described gambling addiction as the No. 1 issue in their community.

A study conducted in California by UCLA found that 30 percent of the gamblers at the casinos surveyed were Asian American, and a third of those exhibited signs of problem gambling.

Fishtown’s SugarHouse Casino has stated that if it were to expand it would create an “Asian Gaming Center.” The casino runs its “Sugar Express” bus directly through Chinatown as well as a predominantly Cambodian and Vietnamese section of South Philadelphia. Sugar House could not immediately be reached for comment for this article.

Problem gambling among Asian American immigrants

The most prevalent explanation for the prominence of problem gambling in the Asian American community? Their culture. The casino industry reclaims the traditional values of “luck” and “prosperity,” taking games like “bầu cua cá cọp” that Nguyen and his friends can remember playing as kids, and turning them into slot machines or online high-stakes money makers.

A Laotian couple in South Philadelphia said that games of luck and chance have such a revered place in their culture that at the funeral of a family member, one of the first orders of business will be to play a game of cards to see what kind of luck their newly released spirit will bring the surviving members of the family.

But Amy Jones, the health and social services director at SEAMACC, says that the issue, the targeting and the addiction come down to the casinos’ capitalization on hopelessness.

“Where there are limited coping skills to deal with the trauma [recent refugees] experienced back in their original community — the resettlement trauma, a lack of language skills — the casino is a place they can go to find some kind of hope,” she told Billy Penn.

Nguyen, when he’s working a crowd, likes to tell people that SugarHouse is the most consistent employer of Asian immigrants than any other business in the city. The accuracy of that statement might be hard to determine, but a 2013 report found that 12 percent of the casino’s employees were Asian American. In 2013, Asians made up 6.9 percent of the population of Philadelphia. At the same time, the Sugar Express is always filled with Asian American riders. So, while the casino provides a meeting place for new immigrants, language services and jobs, it also nurtures — and depends on — an addiction that disproportionately affects the community that it serves.

Chance, luck and betting in Asian cultures

As with any addiction in any culture, gambling is not an issue across the board for Asian Americans. Nguyen’s mother, for example, goes and plays the slots almost every week with money her son and other relatives give her to play. She never loses more than she plans on, and doesn’t dip into money saved for other things. It is a weekly hobby for her, an example of the playful gambling so prevalent in her community. Take a walk through Mifflin Square park at Sixth and Wolf street, and you’ll see families making penny bets and smacking cards down on fold-out picnic tables.

But playful family games and the hobbies of elderly mothers do not belie the fact that the addiction is real. Gambling addiction, which is recognized in the DSM-V, has been shown to give your brain the same rush as cocaine or morphine. The addiction is not just a speculation or a wild accusation, it is locatable, a phenomenon in the brain and a diagnosable disorder.

Gambling addiction does not exist in a bubble. According to Dr. Catherine Williams, director of program planning and operations at the City Department of Behavioral Health, Office of Addiction Services, 60 percent of those addicted to gambling will commit crimes, while 63 percent have substance abuse issues and 20 percent will commit suicide.

A hard habit to break

One thing that makes this issue so difficult to combat is that, according to Nguyen and his team, no one admits that they have an issue. According to Nguyen, everyone knows someone with a problem, but it is rare to see someone take ownership. Admitting to a problem can be a blow to one’s pride. It is a challenge to simply realize that a game you have enjoyed with your friends and family for years has become a personal sickness.

The issue is also notably split amongst the different ethnic groups, who many times get lumped together as “Asian Americans.” The more established Chinese and Vietnamese communities have, generally speaking, more discretionary money for gambling than the more recent immigrant groups like the Cambodians and the Laotians, and even more recently, the Butanese and Burmese. One Laotian man who asked that his name not be used said that gambling addiction was impossible in his community because most people live simply paycheck to paycheck.

But as soon as that man walked away, his wife told Billy Penn that gambling is an issue in the community, and that Seventh Street directly south of Snyder Avenue (an area with a heavy population of Cambodian and Laotian immigrants) was teeming with poker houses. She said the men have less of a sense of when a line is being crossed and their games become problems.

The journey depicted in public art

On July 1, the “Fables of Fortune” mural was unveiled on the corner of Sixth and Wolf streets. Artist Eric Okdeh is the son of a Syrian immigrant who, in trying to find community and a quick leg up, found casinos and developed an addiction that Okdeh says has troubled him and his family for years.

A new South Philadelphia mural is an effort to start the conversation about gambling addiction and recovery. Photo/Mural Arts Program

The mural, dedicated by the Mural Arts Program and the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, is an effort to start the conversation about gambling addiction, the road to recovery and the complicated place that games of luck and chance play in the community. It shows a road of multinational currencies traveled by the Sugar Express, and protesters like those who gathered in Chinatown two years ago. The mural stresses the need for language services— the text on the wall is in more than five languages. Yet it also shows some of the beauty of these games, like children playing “bầu cua cá cọp,” and red smoke over a mythic and fading Mahjongg board.

The mural is officially, according to Dr. Arthur Evans of DBHIDS and Jane Golden of the Mural Arts Program, supposed to start a larger conversation and provide an “alternative way of dealing with the issue.” But it’s also a direct appeal for the city to not incentivize, as Nguyen puts it, a profit-making machine that preys on low-income residents. It is an appeal to de-center immigrant services away from the casino industry.

The Department of Behavioral Health has established the anti-gambling task force, which is an amalgam of many city agencies and advocacy groups. SEAMACC provides support groups and has basically an open door policy for someone seeking help.

In terms of moving forward, Thoai Nguyen, Dr. Arthur Evans, Dr. Catherine Williams agree that the first step is making this issue palatable to talk about.

“The road that SugarHouse rides on is paved with toil and hard work of Asian immigrants,” Nguyen said in considering the mural’s symbolism. “The mural is a beautiful and safe way for people to begin talking about this issue.”