'I sold the family home to pay off mum’s gambling debts'

Gambling addiction can be a hidden problem – particularly within migrant communities. Some of those affected told SBS News how destructive it can be.

Dai Le with her family.

Dai Le, left, with her mother and sisters in Saigon. Source: Supplied

Former refugee Dai Le recounts a Vietnamese saying that was drilled into her as a child: “If you hang around ink you become black, if you hang around light you become bright.”

She first heard the proverb - about the importance of surrounding yourself with good influences - while growing up in a refugee camp following the fall of Saigon.

Now it is something the Fairfield councillor has been forced to say back to her own mother.

Dai Le with her family.
Dai Le, left, with her mother and sisters in Saigon. Source: Supplied

Ms Le always knew her mother liked a bet – she’d been a regular in the backyard gambling dens of 1980s Cabramatta. But she wasn’t prepared for the 2013 discovery that it had got out of control.

“I said to my mother … 'how did you get to this situation?'” Ms Le told SBS News.

Ms Le was forced to sell her mother’s $700,000 Western Sydney house in a bid to settle her debts.

It is still a difficult topic for her to discuss.

“I think … not just my family, but many ethnic families … people with English second language, they don’t talk about it as a problem,” she said.

Ms Le was forced to sell her mother’s $700,000 western Sydney house in a bid to settle her debts.
Ms Le was forced to sell her mother’s $700,000 western Sydney house in a bid to settle her debts. Source: Supplied

Appealing to ‘lucky’ beliefs

A paper published by the Australian Gambling Research Centre in 2016 noted that while non-English speaking groups were less likely to gamble than the broader Australian population, those who did were more likely to develop problems.

Distorted beliefs around lucky rituals, days or colours could be risk factors for addiction, it said, noting that in Vietnamese and Chinese culture in particular “luck is inextricably linked with one’s character”.

Victorian MP Hong Lim, of Chinese and Cambodian background, has spoken out about the harm gambling had done to those in his culturally diverse electorate.

Mr Lim said these days venues provide a private bus service from his southeastern Melbourne electorate "so you got a free ride, a free meal, but you gamble everything".

Crown Melbourne also engage the community through Lunar New Year celebrations.

Victorian MP Hong Lim says in the past gambling venues have overtly targeted cultural and spiritual beliefs.
Victorian MP Hong Lim says in the past gambling venues have overtly targeted cultural and spiritual beliefs. Source: SBS

Mr Lim said Crown Melbourne previously handed out gambling tokens in red envelopes - which he criticised in parliament in 1996.

“Chinese have the practice of giving red packets to young people and unmarried people as a blessing,” he told SBS News. “This is insulting and outright patronising ... they are treating everyone in the community like young children.”

Invisible issue

Monash University’s Charles Livingstone, a vocal opponent of the pokie industry, said gambling venues can be welcoming environments for socially isolated non-English speakers, exposing them to potential addiction.

But the problem often goes unnoticed. Language barriers and shame make it a challenging area to study – and even trickier to treat, he said.

“So it’s sort of a double burden, if you like, that people from non-English speaking backgrounds have.”

A spokesperson from the government-funded Multicultural Problem Gambling Service for NSW told SBS News there was a lack of awareness and understanding of services available in migrant communities “and so hiding the problem is often perceived as the best way to save face”.

'Part of the culture'

Thuy Bui, a problem gambling counsellor with the Australian Vietnamese Women’s Association, said gambling was one of the few socially acceptable vices within Vietnamese community.

“We gamble for nearly every special occasion,” she said, and it is particularly acceptable for Vietnamese women, which masks its harms among many of her clients.

“Gambling is a part of our culture, so they wouldn’t get help unless they had reached a crisis situation,” she said. 

A 2014 study highlighted how that crisis could manifest. Of 35 Vietnamese women researchers interviewed in the Victorian prison system, more than half said they had turned to drug crime in a bid to resolve gambling debts.

Thuy Bui is one of only three Vietnamese gambling counsellors in Melbourne.
Thuy Bui is one of only three Vietnamese gambling counsellors in Melbourne. Source: SBS

Ms Bui said this reflected her own experience with incarcerated clients, many of whom were serving time for drug-related offences and were in serious debt to loan sharks as a result of gambling.

“I can tell that 99 per cent of clients in prison are good women,” Ms Bui said. “They get into trouble because at first, they weren’t aware that gambling could lead them into very bad addiction.”

Breaking the habit

Nationally, Australians gambled almost $24 billion in 2015-16 - almost $1,300 per adult - according to the latest Australian Gambling Statistics. It was a 3.9 per cent rise on the previous year.

The amount spent on addressing gambling-related harms - particularly among minority ethnic groups - pales in comparison, such as that spent through the NSW government’s Responsible Gambling Fund (RGF).

Of $18 million allocated this financial year for initiatives to “promote responsible gambling and prevent and minimise the risk of problem gambling”, just $1.7 million has been earmarked for culturally and linguistically diverse services.

A linguistically diverse audience was completely overlooked in the NSW government’s three-year, $3.9 million 'You’re Stronger Than You Think' campaign, where all television, online, radio and venue advertising was exclusively in English.

A spokesperson from the government agency with oversight of the spending, Liquor and Gaming NSW, told SBS News: “While the advertising campaign wasn’t translated, the RGF will consider the merits of translating the 'You’re Stronger Than You Think' campaign and future campaigns as part of its evaluation of its communications activities”.

Victoria’s Responsible Gambling Foundation spent $20.6 million on gambling prevention and support services in last financial year, of which only about $1 million went to culturally or linguistically diverse programs. A further $200,000 in gambling prevention grants has been distributed this year to these community groups.

The foundation’s chief executive Louise Glanville said a key part of its approach was partnering with communities “so they can tell us how best to use that money”.

But Mr Lim said the tendency to keep quiet about problems would be difficult to tackle.

“In this country, if you’re not banging on the table and screaming like some other more established community then you miss out,” he said.

Connecting communities

Seeing her mother’s gambling problem take hold has given Dai Le an appreciation of the inadequacy of conventional counselling for those from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Her mother has still not conceded she has a problem, let alone told her family how much money she lost.

“The western concept of helping people through trauma through gambling addiction is to provide online or counselling services, but I think it’s an alien concept for people within Vietnamese Australian community - to go to a counsellor to talk about your problems,” Ms Le said.

“You don’t share it with a stranger, you don’t even talk to your family, let alone a specialist counsellor.”

Ms Le said some of the solutions involved giving those from non-English speaking or migrant backgrounds more avenues to connect with their mainstream community - other than those offered by a gambling venue.

The lack of diversity among government decision-makers, regulators and club boards was also an issue, she said.

'Entirely appropriate'

A spokeswoman for Crown Melbourne said that "we accept that a small percentage of our visitors have a problem gambling issue and that's why we invest so heavily in our responsible gaming services".

“Crown employees are extensively trained and work tirelessly to identify and assist those with potential problem gambling issues,” she said.

But any suggestion Crown was trying to encourage problem gambling or target ethnic groups to become problem gamblers was “wrong and highly defamatory," she said.

Clubs NSW said it was “entirely appropriate” for venues to hold celebrations for Chinese New Year, Oktoberfest and St Patrick’s Day, noting that clubs were prevented by law in NSW from advertising poker machine gambling.

“Clubs should make their offerings relevant to the local community and create an environment that makes ethnic members feel welcome at their own club,” a spokesman said.

Gambling Helpline 1800 858 858

The NSW Multicultural Problem Gambling Service 1800 856 800

8 min read
Published 9 April 2018 at 3:57pm
By Leesha McKenny, Jarni Blakkarly