Special Report – The myth of the Chinese gambler

There does not seem to be a scientific consensus on a special ethnic Chinese appetite for gambling. Some factors, such as superstition, may explain a greater interest, but there are those who warn against simplistic generalizations.

MB October 2020 Special Report | The Chinese Gambler

The illustrated Bee magazine, published in late December 1900, included an article called “Chinese the greatest gamblers of the world”, from an article written by Frank G. Carpenter in Macau, or “the Monte Carlo of Asia” also the, “greatest gambling hell.”

A hundred years later, the stereotype persists.

But after all, what makes the Chinese different from other populations? How is the idea supported that the Chinese are, “the greatest gamblers of the world” or, as the current IFTM president Fanny Vong wrote, “the Chinese are more serious and hard-core gamblers than their Western counterparts.”

The same Fanny Vong studied the subject (The Psychology of Risk-taking in Gambling among Chinese Visitors to Macau, 2007), and concluded that, “the Chinese gambler has a tendency to mix the need for sensational excitement with the expectancy to be rewarded with monetary gains in gambling and would enjoy table games more.” So, she adds, “in the long run, the Chinese gambler who is inclined to stimulating risk-taking is more likely to spend more on gambling.”

Contrary to their Western counterparts, “when they play, excitement does not seem to be the only reason. Very often, they are propelled by the motive to make money and also perhaps a belief that they can really make money from gambling,” Ms Vong also concluded.

To complete his master’s degree in Hotel Administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Chinese researcher Qing Han studied Chinese culture and casino customer service (2007).

The idea of superstition associated with the gambling has developed, “gambling luck is associated with specific practices in Chinese superstition culture. As the chance of winning in gambling can’t be controlled physically, Chinese gamblers look to the metaphysical solution promised by many of their superstitious beliefs. Even though not all who practice them necessarily believe in them, they are nonetheless accepted either because of mere superstition or as a cultural tradition.”

Qing Han gives us several examples, like purposely avoiding hotel room numbers ending with 4 (“sounds similar to death in Mandarin”), and 58 (sounds similar to “won’t prosper”). Instead, gamblers select auspicious hotel room numbers like 84 (similar to “prosperous till death”), 1388 (similar to “prosper for a long time”), 168 (similar to “prosper all the way”) and 998 (“prosper for a long time”). Offering fruits to the Gods, wearing red underwear, lighting up a joss stick or making prayers are some of the practices they engage in before gambling. “Going to urinate or wash hands is believed to help change someone’s luck who has been losing money, but one who has been winning should definitely not wash their hands, because it can wash the good luck away,” wrote Qing Han.

This author establishes another difference with western-based gamblers, “the Chinese take gambling seriously. When money is involved, there is less interest in the process of gambling but more concern with the result. (…) The Chinese group showed significantly higher levels of anxiety and stress than did the Caucasians, and lower levels of fun and excitement.”

In the same line of ideas, Canadian researcher Elisabeth Papineau understands that, “Chinese culture (and more broadly Asian culture), notwithstanding internal diversity, has distinctive notions of fate, chance, luck, probability, risk and control.”

This and other generalizations are, however, contradicted by the investigation of Kah-Wee Lee, Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore.

“’The Chinese are natural gamblers’ – I have encountered this statement in various tones – derogatory, congratulatory, confessional, ironic and scientific – again and again in my research,” he states. “In the case of gambling, it is not uncommon to hear those of Chinese ethnicity self-designating themselves as ‘natural gamblers’. But this only highlights how ridiculous it is to take the Chinese as one homogeneous group, a racial and civilizational constant somehow unaffected by history.”

That’s why Kah-Wee Lee wrote the essay Critical Reflections on the Myth of the Chinese Gambler (2018).

“From Canton to Macau to Singapore to Sydney to San Francisco to Nevada, the Orientalist gaze creates the figure of the ‘Chinese gambler’ as inscrutable and self-explanatory, fascinating and repulsive. It is as if one image captures the raw essence of ‘Chineseness,’ a racial or civilizational constant that is impervious to modernity,” the essay reads.

According to the Singapore-based scholar, those and other allegations “should be recognized as attempts at framing and producing the ideal Chinese gambler. They reflect the moral-legal anxieties and commercial interests of the casino complex, defined loosely as a network of corporations, governments, professionals, and civic groups.”

“Crowed out by the industry, the Chinese gambler is once again frozen in a zone between the pathological, the mystical, and the eternal,” Kah-Wee Lee concludes.

“In the long run, the Chinese gambler who is inclined to stimulating risk-taking is more likely to spend more on gambling” – Fanny Vong

Stock market

“Today, some reports see gambling in China as ‘effectively a national pastime,’ despite the fact that only a few permissible lotteries exist and gambling is not permitted outside of Macau” – say the authors of Economic Crime and Casinos: China’s Wager on Macau (2013), Quan Fang, School of Law, Macau University of Science and Technology.

According to those researchers, “the Chinese penchant for gambling can also be seen in the dramatic rise in investments in the stock market.”

Qing Han understands that, “because of China’s emerging focus on capitalism and the economic boom, there is a positive relationship between gambling risk taking and investment risk taking. People participating in gambling believe that these risks are instrumental to the realization of profits to improve their living conditions in the shortest possible time” and Fanny Vong underlines that, “it was difficult to conclude whether gambling and investment in China belonged to two different risk-taking domains because results showed that these two propensities were positively related.”

One of the most important documents about compulsive gambling in the Chinese population is still, The Chinese Family Service of Greater Montreal (1997), “which observed that a major methodological difficulty of the study stemmed from the fact that playing mahjong, buying lottery tickets and stock-market speculation are so pervasive that ‘people who participate may not see themselves gambling’.”

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