University Of Hong Kong
Master of Journalism
“Gambling: Winners and Losers”
By Kristin Flanagan
It is Saturday night at Hong Kong‟s Happy Valley racecourse.
Once a malarial swamp, the lush, green track contrasts
dramatically with the skyscrapers that surround it. Under the
bright floodlights, there is an unexpected, almost eerie silence in
the stalls as thousands of punters intently study their racing sheets.
Many clutch earpieces, listening for horseracing tips on the radio.
They scrutinize the racing odds on the giant screen. Up in the air-
conditioned boxes, bankers and barristers, shipping and property
magnates sip champagne between bets.
The horses break out of the gates, their hooves pounding the
beautifully manicured grass. Murmuring begins up in “Treasure
Terrace”, the stand directly overlooking the finishing post. As the
horses come around the last bend, the crowd's roar is deafening.
The murmuring turns to shouting. Everyone is craning their necks,
jumping up and down, waving their hands. As “Dragon Star”, a
horse with odds to win of 5 to 1 crosses the 1200-meter finish line,
there are hoops of delight and cries of dismay. You don‟t need to
be able to speak Chinese to understand which is which. Some
betting slips are ripped up or dropped to the ground. The lucky
ones cash in. Fortunes are won and lost, all in a matter of minutes.
Every time the horses break out of the gate at Happy Valley or at
the newer track in Sha Tin, more than a million people watch from
the grandstands or tune in on television or radio, hoping they‟ve
backed a winner.
From September to June, 45 weeks a year, about 35,000 people
turn up at the tracks on a typical day (for the season, nearly three
million out of a population of seven million will be at the racetrack
in person); far more bet at the 124 off-track betting centers that dot
even the most remote islands in the territory. A lot of money
changes hands; turnover for the 1999/2000 race season was well
over HK$83 billion.
More than 800,000 people who don‟t visit the track or the betting
centers use telephone betting facilities, presumably after studying
one of the 25 or so publications in Hong Kong dedicated solely to
racing. On a busy day, it takes nearly 4,000 telephone operators at
the Hong Kong Jockey Club to handle the call volume.
“Racing is for Hong Kong what baseball is to the USA or soccer is
to England,” says John Philps, racing editor of the online Racing
Post at the South China Morning Post newspaper.
The Jockey Club has a long-held monopoly on gambling in the
territory and not only runs horseracing in Hong Kong, but also the
hugely popular Mark Six Lottery (while horse races are run on
Wednesdays and Saturdays during the season, the Mark Six is
drawn on Tuesdays and Thursdays). Besides the 100 or so licensed
mahjong parlors, these are the only forms of legalized gambling in
The non-profit club, which employs almost 19,000 people and is
wealthier than many third world nations (Ethiopia, for example,
has a population of around 60 million and its GDP is HK$46
billion), is Hong Kong‟s biggest charity donor. Out of its HK$83
billion earnings - after paying punters, deducting operating costs
and paying government taxes of 14 percent (HK$11 billion last
year) - it gives to more than HK$1 billion to more than150 Hong
Kong charities, for hospitals and community service centers, parks
and playgrounds, universities and schools.
Edward Kwan, Hong Kong‟s only certified gambling counselor,
says the relationship between charity and the Jockey Club presents
a complex social issue.
“The old Hong Kong saying, that the power in Hong Kong rests
with the British Governor, the colonial Hong Kong Shanghai Bank
and the Jockey Club, still rings true with respect to the Jockey
Club‟s power; it means that the Jockey Club is hardly ever
criticized, particularly by academics and universities who rely on
the club for their funding.”
But Hong Kong‟s residents‟ ability to gamble is not just restricted
to the Jockey Club and the physical boundaries of the territory.
Macau, a previously Portuguese enclave ceded back to China in
December 2000 and often thought of as the “Monte Carlo of the
East”, is less than an hour away by jetfoil.
The latest Hong Kong Tourist Association figures show that nearly
four million Hong Kong residents visited Macau (although there
are no estimates on how many of these visitors went specifically
for casino gambling) in 1999. In 1998, the figure was
approximately the same.
In addition to Macau, Hong Kongers can also turn to the sea.
Pleasure ships operate casinos in international waters just outside
Hong Kong, where no gambling laws are in force. Some throw in
weekend trips to Vietnam.
If they dare, gamblers can also go beyond the legal arenas and into
the murky waters of illegal gambling, but be warned: illegal
betting (in underground casinos, for example) is punishable by a
fine of up HK$30,000 and up to nine months in jail.
Kachoo! How the Fever Caught On
Horseracing has been part of Hong Kong life since early British
settlers introduced the sport in the mid-19th century. For 117 years,
despite war, Japanese occupation, and the handover of Hong Kong
to China, horseracing thrived and flourished.
Before the territory‟s return to China in 1997, the late Chinese
leader Deng Xiaoping made a very public point: to promise
worried Hong Kong punters that horseracing and betting would be
allowed to continue.
As for mainland China, gambling was officially prohibited
throughout much of its history. However, this did not prevent
wide-ranging activity. In Shanghai, powerful gangs grew up to
control the sport and in the 1930s, Shanghai sprouted opium dens
and brothels that made Al Capone‟s Chicago look tame, at least
until the Communists took over in 1949 and shut it all down.
In Hong Kong, during the first few years of British administration,
from the 1850s to the early 1870s, gambling was tolerated. But
very soon gambling was regulated (in 1891 the first piece of
comprehensive legislation was enacted), prohibiting or restricting
gambling dens. After all, Victorian notions ran deep within the
colony; gambling was a social evil. Horseracing however, was
permitted, although until the late 1800s it was only an annual event
that lasted three or so days.
If gambling was only tolerated in its early days, how did it grab
such a strong foothold within the fabric of Hong Kong?
Sociologists argue that it‟s purely economic.
“It‟s the lack of social security,” says Cecilia Chan, a professor in
the University of Hong Kong‟s social work department. “Many
Hong Kongers live hand to mouth and gambling is their only
chance to get rich so they hope for a miracle, a streak of luck, a big
Others say gambling thrives because it is closely related to the
Confucian world-view. Confucianism stresses securing favors
from the Gods by praying to them, and sacrificing to them. In this
way, the Chinese hoped to gain favour for their endeavors and to
have good luck. Luck, and the quest of good luck, are indelibly
imprinted within the soul of Hong Kong‟s people.
Gambling Fever and the Sick Patients
The notion that gambling is just a part of Hong Kong life is where
the problems begin, says Dr. Grace Leung, a clinical psychologist
who used to treat compulsive (or pathological as it is called in
professional terms) gamblers in the United Kingdom.
“It (gambling) isn‟t seen as a problem here but rather a normal
leisure activity, which rather undermines the dangers of it,” she
And there are dangers. Many addicted gamblers ruin their lives;
they lose jobs, run up debts and lie to and neglect their families.
Their marriages break up. Some end up with criminal convictions.
Dr. Leung says that in the Chinese system for classifying mental
disorders, there is no reference to compulsive or pathological
gambling in the illness categories, unlike in the United States or
Although there are no “prevalent studies” as Dr Leung calls them,
on gambling in Hong Kong, it is estimated that at least 1 to 3%
become pathological gamblers, an estimate widely used in
Australia as well as the US and the UK.
For pathological gamblers, Hong Kong has only one certified
gambling counselor, Edward Kwan. Unless they are lucky to find
Kwan first, most gamblers who develop problems wind up going
to social workers.
Unlike most gamblers, pathological gamblers do not gamble for
fun or for more than they can afford to lose. They gamble for the
“certainty” of winning and have what is classified by most
psychiatrists as an illness, a psychological illness.
In the psychiatrists “bible”, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual,
pathological gambling is diagnosed as a habit and impulsive
“The disorder consists of frequent, repeated episodes of gambling
which dominate the individual’s life to the detriment of social,
occupational, material, and family values and commitments.
"Those who suffer from this disorder may put their jobs at risk,
acquire huge debts, and lie or break the law to obtain money or
evade payments of debts.
"They describe an intense urge to gamble, which is difficult to
control, together with pre-occupation with ideas and images of the
act of gambling and the circumstances that surround the act. These
preoccupations and urges often increase at times when life is
The Gambling Bug and its Costs
As the Jockey Club's contributions demonstrate, gambling
produces socio-economic benefits for Hong Kong. But it also can
produce social costs, including some -- the break-up of marriages
and families, the ruined lives -- that cannot be measured in dollars.
This story examines the lives of five people touched by gambling.
First comes the incredible story of Patrick*, a man who began to
full of promise but ended up living hand-to-mouth, having
gambled his life away.
Then there is Alice*, a woman caught up in a trail of financial
destruction and emotional betrayal. She sacrificed her hard-earned
financial security to rescue a family member who recklessly
gambled his future away.
Next is Dr. Tsang. He tries to treat addicted gamblers, including
John, an accountant who fed his gambling habit with stolen credit
And then there is Vic Yau, the middle-level civil servant. He
balances the compassion he feels for addicted gamblers with the
practicality of his day-to-day job, overseeing gambling policy.
And finally there is Edward Kwan, the only person in Hong Kong
specifically trained to treat gamblers. He is also a police counselor,
who faced embarrassment when his brother was arrested for a
From Something to Nothing
Patrick is a stocky, short man with glasses and wary eyes. As he
walks through Hong Kong Park he seems on edge. He sits on a
park bench, fiddling with his fake Rolex and gulping water from a
bottle filled with tap water, and begins to tell his story. It is a story
of a man with a promising career and life, who loses everything –
his wife, his friends, his home, his job, and his pride.
His first gambling experiences were at seven years old.
“I remember the illegal and casual gambling on the streets in my
childhood neighborhood, with cards and dice, especially around
Chinese New Year.”
His parents, hawkers who worked in a wet market selling
vegetables, were enormously proud of his university education and
“They never imagined in their wildest dreams that I could go to
university,” he says.
When he was 20, he visited a Macau casino with friends.
“I can‟t remember whether I won or lost,” he says, “but I do
remember loving that environment, the high, excited feeling. On
reflection, I loved it more than most people.”
After a few false starts in the job market, Patrick finally found a
good job selling multiplexes for a major telecom organization.
“Looking back, the telecom job is where my gambling problems
began,” he says.
First, there was the constant pressure of results-oriented selling and
a commission-based environment: “When I got great sales results,
I felt proud; I felt very excited when I got my first order. But when
sales didn‟t go well, I was always on the verge of being fired. All
in all, it changed my perception about money and its value.”
Second, there was the added pressure of company politics and
business affiliations. His boss loved gambling and to keep close to
his boss and make the most of his opportunities, Patrick would go
with him to Macau. He felt the boss liked him and he felt really
But soon Patrick was going alone and the relentless pursuit of the
high he got from gambling would, over the years, put him, in total,
more than HK$ 2,500,000 in debt.
It started when Patrick borrowed from friends and work
colleagues. As his debts got bigger and bigger, he borrowed from
banks. Once a credit line was used up with one bank, he would
simply borrow from another. At one point he had accumulated
eight bank loans and six credit cards.
One night he won HK$200,000 and another he lost HK$500,000.
After this seesaw of winning, losing, winning and then eventually
losing, things finally spun out of control. His debts reached
unmanageable levels. He now owed more than $HK 1 million.
His wife was distraught about his gambling, the time spent away
from his family and the debt. She threatened to leave him unless he
took out a repayment plan. He agreed to give up gambling and get
He met a social worker, who turned out to be no help at all. The
social worker had very little experience or training with gamblers.
“ How could he advise me?” said Patrick. “He gave me no
direction but just asked me silly questions like, „Did I love my
wife?‟ It was a waste of time.”
Then a relapse. After four gambling-free years, he walked into a
mahjong parlor. Although his wife thought he was debt-free, he
still owed $HK 50,000. He thought he could win it back. He didn‟t.
He doubled the debt.
Patrick went back to the Lisboa Casino in Macau. But he lost even
more. He was forced to resort to loan sharks and very soon he was
up to his ears in debt again. But this time to the tune of over HK
Patrick was now scared. He wasn‟t sleeping at night and he says
every day was filled with worry as he studied his bank accounts.
You want to shake Patrick when he talks about how he just kept
going back to gamble time after time after time. How can anyone
run up such a huge debt again, having spent four years repaying
the old debt? How could he not learn from his mistake? He says
that even he finds it hard to explain.
“Nobody else can understand you if they haven‟t gambled in this
way, they just can‟t understand why you keep going. I don‟t really
understand it myself.
“But there was always the feeling that when you are so much in
debt, winning something back is better than nothing.”
It‟s probably the loan sharks that are the real “winners” in the deal.
Hanging around the casino, they prey on gamblers like Patrick.
When he won money he would be expected to give them a hefty
bonus from his winnings, along with a 10 percent interest charge.
If he lost, they expected him to return the money one or two days
later, and pay 10 percent over three or five days, depending on the
After one particularly heavy gambling session, a loan shark
insisted on escorting Patrick back to his apartment in Hong Kong,
to make sure the address Patrick had given was correct.
But wasn‟t the idea of dealing with loan sharks in Macau
intimidating enough, never mind a request for a home visit?
“I thought it was reasonable,” said Patrick, “But my wife thought
differently. I hoped my brother-in-law could help pay but my wife
said no. This ruined my plan. After seeing the loan shark in my
apartment lobby, my wife then got nervous and upset and called
The police referred him to Edward Kwan, the gambling counselor
who Patrick says saved his life.
Before Edward came in to help in negotiations with the many loan
sharks he had borrowed from, Patrick was living on borrowed
time. The loan sharks called him day and night, threatening him
and his family if he didn‟t come up with the money.
When the negotiations with the loan sharks dragged on for nearly a
month, Patrick‟s wife told him to fly to England and start a new
“But I didn‟t want to go because of my two daughters,” he says,
“and I didn‟t want to live alone in a strange place for the rest of my
Forced to sell his house to repay his debts, he still owed
HK$400,000. (His sister had paid a lump sum and Edward had
negotiated with the loan sharks that only the principal would be
paid back without interest.)
“My sister‟s three daughters paid the HK$400,000. That exact
amount was all they had, not a cent less. It was a miracle.”
Today Patrick survives on HK$50 a day and lives in a squalid,
$3,000 a month room paid for by his sister after his wife finally left
But his sister can no longer afford his rent, and Patrick is about to
move to her tiny one-room apartment. He says he is forever
indebted to her and you can see from his face that it hurts to be
beholden to her this late in his life.
He also had to face the shame of going to the High Court to declare
bankruptcy. He has no close friends. He can never go back to the
casino; the loan sharks still remember the old debts. He has lost his
job, his house and his wife. Recently, he wrote a letter to his wife,
telling her he loved her and that he was sorry. She never replied.
His elderly father is wheelchair bound and lives with his wife and
children. His wife has banned Patrick from her house.
“I saw my father once in a restaurant but it was extremely difficult
for him to get there. He‟s too old,” he says. ”It really hurts that I
rarely see him. I know he doesn‟t have much time left.”
When asked if he‟ll ever gamble again, he smiles. He says he can‟t
afford to, even if he had the money.
“I just want to make the most of the life I have left.”
Trails of Destruction
Alice*, a tall, elegant and strong looking woman on the low side of
40, finally finds the key to her steel-gray filing cabinet. On the top
drawer is a white label, “GAMBLING.”
“I haven‟t opened this up in a while,” she says, pulling out leaflets,
newspaper articles, faxes and even a book, “But it brings back all
those memories about David.”
„David‟ is her brother-in-law. His gambling addiction nearly
destroyed her family.
Alice‟s family discovered David‟s gambling problem in 1994, after
his father died. Such tragedies, and stressful situations, can often
trigger an existing gambling problem, experts say.
Shortly after her father-in-law‟s death, Alice‟s family had a seven-
week religious ceremony with a Daoist priest. Translated from
Cantonese, it‟s called the “sevens” and is a kind of therapeutic
release. But David‟s mind was elsewhere.
During the ceremony, Alice noticed that David was wearing
headphones -- evidence he was listening to the horse races.
“He was obviously listening to the horseracing, as we ritually and
supposedly solemnly walked around the room.”
David worked for the family jewellery firm and lived at home. He
started to become absent most evenings and explained that he‟d
found a job driving at night for some extra money.
The first indication something was wrong was when David asked
the family for HK$200,000, claiming that somebody in business
had ripped him off and that he‟d had to gamble to get the money
back. He‟d been held in a hotel room by a loan shark in Macau and
his brother had to bail him out. The brother would later suffer a
nervous breakdown after embezzling money to pay back David‟s
David would ask for money from Alice and the family many times
after that. The next time was for HK$600,000 and again David lied
and said he‟d lost money on a business deal.
“The family paid because they thought it was shameful, but David
was manipulative and was also using the credibility of the family
business to get cash to gamble from business associates.”
After receiving the $600,000, he paid off most of his debt, but
sneakily kept back $100,000 for gambling in Macau. He
immediately flew there by helicopter.
It was this helicopter ride -- which cost just over HK$1,200, a
small amount compared to the huge debts he had run up -- that
made his wife leave him. Seeing the helicopter charge on an Amex
bill was the final straw.
When confronted by the family, David still denied he had a
problem. The family was divided on whether he was telling the
truth. Things went from bad to worse.
After approaching Alice‟s husband‟s ex-girlfriend for money,
David then stole his wife‟s exquisite and expensive jewellery.
“He was like a heroin addict,” Alice said, “he was trying to trying
to get money from anywhere. He was also suicidal and said he was
going to jump off a building.”
Alice began to get desperate herself. The loan sharks were after
David and she was scared they‟d hurt her children. Another
HK$20,000 bill was also due.
Alice looked for help. She called the Samaritans who couldn‟t
really help. A leading counsellor said no one could really help.
Alice called a high-ranking police officer whom she had met
through her church. He told her not to pay the loan sharks, and that
the whole family should leave Hong Kong within 48 hours.
“But this was not really a feasible option for us,” Alice said.
Alice and her husband used most of his pension money to pay the
debts. With the money left over, they travelled to the US and found
a place for David in a residential psychiatric hospital near
Philadelphia that specialised in gambling addiction and cost
US$10,000 a month.
David stayed two months, but hated his counselor. He went to
Canada, after his wife refused to reconcile with him in Hong Kong
and began seeing another man. He also found he couldn‟t get a
David now had no job, no wife and was a long way from his
family and he seemed to have little left to lose. Except, perhaps his
When David was on a gambling binge, he would often neglect his
health. Sometimes he wouldn‟t eat for three days. He became so
obsessed with the gambling, that he like other gamblers, neglected
going to a doctor.
David was diagnosed diabetic and he lost his eyesight. “He‟s now
blind,” says Alice.
Alice thinks it‟s unbelievable that his gambling problems led him
to go blind. “But what‟s even sadder, “ she says, “ is that it‟s
almost like going blind has given him some kind of absolution – he
has no remorse for the pain he‟s caused.”
Not Everyone Can Be Cured
Dr. Tsang is a big man who talks and laughs a lot. His tiny office is
in “C” wing of the Castle Peak Psychiatric Hospital in a far corner
of the New Territories. A set of keys jangles in his pocket, which
he frequently pulls in and out as he enters different security
buildings. His beeper goes off intermittently.
He treats schizophrenics, drug, alcohol and sex addicted patients
and has treated 30 gambling addicts over the last 10 years. Once
his shoulder was dislocated by an enraged patient, and after being
given morphine for the pain, he says he can empathize with his
patients‟ need for drugs and their desire to get “high”. His patients
pay HK$44 a session to see him. “John,” an addicted gambler,
came to see him about a year ago.
John, 26, was a university-educated accountant who worked for a
major US accountancy firm in Central, Hong Kong. He grew up in
a stormy, well off family. His mother left her high-ranking
Communist Party official husband in China and took her two
children to Hong Kong.
Even though John earned a good salary of HK$60,000 a month, his
mother compared him unfavorably to his PhD educated and highly
successful sister who worked in the US.
Living at home with a continually critical mother, John felt stifled,
bored and lonely. When he tried to move out of home his mother
threatened to kill herself. His absent father told John to take
responsibility for his mother. John felt trapped.
It was then that John started to drop into licensed (legal) mahjong
parlors. John felt excited when he won even small amounts of
money and soon he was going every evening to play. It became a
refuge from his mother. It lasted two years before things started to
get out of control.
John refused to meet a girl from China his mother wanted him to
marry. Instead, he played mahjong all day long and one day, when
he came home, he discovered his mother had thrown all his
belongings onto the front door step.
With cash and credit cards he headed for Macau. When those were
exhausted, he borrowed HK$500,000 from a loan shark, but lost it
all on baccarat in just a few hours.
The loan shark paid for his overnight hotel room and then called
John‟s mother. She would have to pay back the loan plus interest,
he insisted, or she would never see her son again.
In dire straits with his mother, he was about to hit rock bottom at
work. The first hint at trouble on the horizon was a “warning
letter” for his unexplained absences.
He went missing on payday. A co-worker who knew about his
gambling addiction and was fed up with having to cover for him,
found him in the casino. He reported him to management staff. The
next day, his bosses fired him.
Unemployment left John with more time on his hands and his
gambling increased. His mother spent more than HK$1 million on
his gambling debts in just under three years.
When his mother‟s funds dried up he applied for dozens of credit
cards and loans in other people‟s names. He waited by the mailbox
in his building for the post to arrive. Memorizing an ID number
printed on the back of an envelope, he jotted down the person‟s
name and applied for credit. Being an accountant certainly helped.
Then one day, while out shopping with some of the fake cards, he
His mother, after reading an article about gambling in a newspaper,
took him to Castle Peak. Dr Tsang diagnosed him as a pathological
gambler and the treatment began.
“Normally we use what we call the integrated approach for
pathological gamblers -- a combination of medication and
behavioral therapy,” said Tsang. We use anti- depressants, which
increase the serotonin levels, which are effective for compulsive
disorders. John refused those, claiming they made him nauseous.”
He did, however, begin a “gambling diary” in which he recorded
times when he felt the urge to gamble. Tsang also used “thought
stop” whereby he put a rubber band on John‟s wrist and every time
he felt the urge to gamble or fantasized about gambling he had to
ping the elastic band back on his wrist – very painful, says Tsang,
demonstrating on his own wrist, when you‟re thinking about
gambling 99% of the time.
Part of the treatment also involved financial management. As part
of their recovery program, Tsang says that gamblers should never
have much money or access to it.
“However, I did have one patient who was on an allowance from
his wife of $30 a day, which was to buy cigarettes,” says Tsang.
“He gave up smoking, saved his allowance for six months and then
went and gambled it away in 5 minutes.”
When she felt John was strong enough, his mother who had been
in therapy with Tsang also, searched for a self-help group in Hong
Kong. She found nothing. So John flew to the US to stay with his
sister and joined GA (Gamblers Anonymous). There, said Tsang,
he gained great insight into his problem and managed to control his
But back in Hong Kong, the police were looking for him and on
his arrival back into Chek Lap Kok airport, he was arrested and put
on bail pending his court case.
He was sentenced to three years in prison, which he is currently
serving, and which Dr Tsang feels is a disaster for such an
intelligent and sensitive young man.
“He could have had such a promising life, but instead he gambled
it all away.”
A Civil Servant With A Conscience
On the 31st floor of a nondescript government office block in
Wanchai, Vic Yau, is a fresh-faced and well-dressed Assistant
Secretary in the Home Affairs Department, focusing solely on
gambling policy and regulation. He enters the huge empty
boardroom with a bunch of papers flapping under his arm.
He has obviously been studying an official press release on the
Gambling Ordinance Bill (available on the Hong Kong
government‟s website) because he quotes verbatim from it.
Sentence after sentence.
“The government‟s policy is not to encourage gambling but to
allow controlled legal gambling” …” The rationale is that there is
always a demand for gambling and the government cannot ban
gambling activities altogether.”
He says he is only a few years out of college, where he studied for
a degree in history. Gambling will be his policy area for a few
years, after which he will be moved to some other area such as
His job is an important one, though, because gambling and the
proposed changes in policy are hot topics in Hong Kong right now.
The government recently proposed an amendment to the gambling
ordinance that would make it illegal for Hong Kong people to
place bets with offshore bookmakers. Telephone and Internet
betting – particularly that on English Premiership soccer - is
apparently proving very popular with Hong Kong punters.
It may soon be illegal to place a bet from Hong Kong to the UK,
for example, on soccer‟s premier match – the FA Cup final. It will
also be an offence for an offshore bookmaker to facilitate gambling
in Hong Kong.
“It is hard for us to draw the line, however,” says Yau. “We may
have an enforcement problem as we can only reduce this type of
gambling by limiting financial tools in Hong Kong”.
The types of tools available in Hong Kong are illustrated by recent
actions by the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC).
It stopped the authorization of on-line gambling transactions
through its credit cards for fear of legal repercussions.
But even as the government is proposing tougher restrictions on
offshore gambling, the government is simultaneously looking at
the feasibility of expanding into sports betting, in addition to
authorized horseracing and the Mark Six lottery.
Certainly the government is losing revenue from gambling and it‟s
The Hong Kong Jockey Club, which controls all horseracing in
Hong Kong, has blamed reduced betting revenues in recent months
on competition from unauthorized Internet sites. Yau also
provides figures that show that the government‟s total revenue
from betting (betting duty is 14% paid to the government from the
Jockey Club) was HK$13.5 billion in 1997/98, HK$12.2 billion in
1998/99 and dropped to HK$11.9 billion in 1999/2000.
And what about the state of gambling in Hong Kong? Does he
have any statistics on the number of gamblers in Hong Kong and
what forms of gambling they most prefer?
“Our statistics are only for internal use,” he says.
It all seems like cloak and dagger stuff, but he will admit to a
gambling review due out in June, which he says will talk about the
impact of gambling and the viability of sports betting.
“But we can‟t do it (sports betting) without Legco support,” he
says. “In the US they have a referendum to decide whether there
should be more gambling or not, but here it is much more
He says that opposition comes from the Democratic Party,
religious groups and educational groups concerned about the
impact on society and issues such as underage gambling.
And what about the social costs of gambling?
“We, the government, need to look at the whole story and social
costs are only part of that cost.”
However, he thinks that Hong Kong does not have the same extent
of problems that occur in places like Australia, where he says
gambling is much more accessible.
“Studies I‟ve looked at suggest that the availability of convenience
gambling such as slot machines found in bars as in Australia, is a
major problem for pathological gambling.”
But don‟t people go to Macau and bring their “social” costs back to
“My personal opinion is that I wouldn‟t dismiss the idea that there
is pathological gambling in Hong Kong but we do not have the
kind of culture in Hong Kong that looks after pathological
Hearing some stories about problem gamblers – qualitative data, as
he puts it – stops him in his tracks.
“Look,” he says, somewhat red in the face. “I am a Christian, I do
understand that there are a lot of social problems – that is my
personal view. I‟m not sure how some of our researchers are going
to provide such details. They say they can, but I wonder about it.”
He also seems to believe that gambling is around to stay and
whatever the government does is irrelevant.
“This is a culture where people go to temples to pray for good luck
for gambling – where else in the world do you get that?”
Giving Gamblers Hope: Some remedies
With gambling such a part of the national psyche, it seems criminal
that there is only one trained gambling counselor in Hong Kong.
Edward Kwan is this man. A highly ranked police officer who has
counseled hundreds of fellow officers with gambling problems, he
knows the problem all too well. His brother Andrew* is a
compulsive gambler who lost all his money on the highs and lows
of the Hang Seng Index.
Edward is intimately familiar with the disease that has held him
and his family members hostage, calling himself a “psychological
victim”. He laughs at the thought that his counseling job is in some
strange way therapy for himself, a way to cope with the grief
caused by his brother.
Friends first introduced Andrew to the thrills and spills of the stock
market a few years ago, calling it “easy money”.
Over time, however, Edward grew suspicious of Andrew‟s stock
market picks and questioned his brother. Andrew grew defensive,
saying he wasn‟t greedy and he only wanted to make $HK 5,000 a
day. But Edward wasn‟t buying it.
“Gamblers often try to rationalize their behavior,” Edward says.
“Another problem is that betting on the highs and lows of the stock
market provides a 'respectable' façade for a compulsive gambler.”
In 1997, Edward tried to call a family meeting, after noticing that
Andrew‟s behaviour was becoming more and more secretive.
Andrew was taking his parents money to expand his stock
portfolio. The brothers' relationship turned sour.
Andrew became even more defensive when asked about his debt,
refusing to accept he had a problem. The family didn‟t help. Rather
than face up to reality, Andrew‟s father gave him more money --
his pension money.
“That hurt,” Edward says. “It was totally disrespectful considering
my position as a counselor – I felt downplayed.”
But what happened next left Edward dumbfounded. Andrew was
arrested. One of Andrew‟s clients at his brokerage firm complained
that Andrew had put a huge amount of his money at risk without
“It‟s ironic,” says Edward. “Here I am counseling police officers
on gambling and other problems, and my brother is arrested for
gambling-related offenses and brought to the station.”
The brothers last saw each other at the mother‟s funeral. It was
highly embarrassing event, as the church was packed with relatives
whom Andrew had borrowed money from.
At the end of the funeral, things deteriorated. As the pastor stood
up to say a last prayer, Edward looked around and saw that his
brother was missing. He knew exactly where Andrew was.
“It was 10 o‟clock in the morning,” Edward said, “the same time
the stock market opens. How sick can someone be when they‟re
supposed to be present for the last rites at their mother‟s funeral?”
Edward was also upset, feeling his mother‟s cancer was directly
related to his brother‟s gambling and that she was so worried about
Andrew that in the end “it just consumed her.”
After the funeral Edward and Andrew quarreled, with Andrew
accusing Edward of trying to change his life, of trying to play big
brother and turn him into another person.
A few years later, Kwan was walking on an overpass bridge in
Wanchai. He heard a voice say “Tai Ba”. As he turned around, he
saw a little boy looking up at him.
“It was my six-year-old nephew,” said Edward. “I was so thrilled
that he still recognized me and that little word (Uncle) was so
Andrew, with his long-suffering wife and his son, was in a hurry
and was running to catch a bus. They spoke briefly. Andrew had
lost his house, sold his car and was living in a remote rural area.
It was not only Andrew‟s family life that was affected. Andrew
had persuaded his brother-in-law to guarantee his loans. Newly
married, the brother-in-law re-mortgaged his house, delaying plans
to have a family because of the money Andrew had gambled.
“Gamblers‟ lies affect many other lives,” says Edward. “The
relationships of thousands and thousands of people in Hong Kong
have been damaged in this way.”
Gamblers Anonymous (GA), the American self-help group for
gambling, say the average compulsive gambler drags down at least
two dozen people who are not gamblers. Wives, ruined relations
with children, parents, friends and family.
On Tuesday and Thursday nights, from 7 to 10pm (Edward says
it‟s supposed to be 7 to 9pm, but it almost always spills over),
Edward holds counseling sessions for addicted gamblers.
The group has been running since December, and it is the only
specialized gambling help available in Hong Kong.
Four to six people, ranging from ages 35-50, meet each session. It
is usually the wives who first ring Edward, often desperate after
learning the truth, although four men have yet to bring their wives
to the Tuesday meeting. On Thursdays, Edward helps two couples
and two singles. It costs HK$500 a couple or HK$300 a single,
although there are many times they cannot pay.
There are a few rules: everything is confidential and everything
must be mutually agreed -- even picking new premises must be
Personal stories are first on the agenda, to see if anyone has
gambled the previous week, which is always a possibility in a
group of addicted gamblers.
One week, a group member failed to show up, later admitting to
betting HK$1000 on a soccer match.
Instead of dwelling on the gambling behavior, Edward tries to talk
about a change in values, encouraging gamblers to use their money
in a different way.
“I told him that with the HK$1,000, he could have spent HK$150,
watching three of the latest movies all day, or he could have
fulfilled his wife‟s dream to go running, and bought her a brand
new pair of Nikes.”
But relapse is just part of the recovery process and it‟s the lesson
learnt that‟s important.
It‟s the last step in the process of change, Edward says. The first is
contemplation, forcing the gambler to think about what they‟ve
done; the second is action, inducing the gambler to give an identity
card to a spouse so they can't go to Macau; the third is
maintenance, meaning a gambler must build a monitoring system
and start new hobbies.
“One of my clients likes reading,“ Edward says. “Now he always
has a book in his hand.”
One behavioral technique used in the recovery process is called “in
vivo desensitization,” which Edward describes as going to an ice-
cream shop knowing that you cannot order anything.
“If you do it several times, your appetite will drop,” Edward says.
On a trip to Happy Valley, the group was told to look around and
not gamble. It meant getting better insight into their own behavior
by observing others.
“They came back with such amazingly vivid and detailed
descriptions of people putting on bets and that insight of, „Oh God,
I was one of them before,‟" says Edward. “The ability to stand
back gives them confidence.”
Edward feels that helping people is like watching a movie, where
some part of it touches your soul.
“I often have tears in my eyes,” Edward says, “I move myself.”
And what does he do for gamblers in Hong Kong? His voice
“I give them hope.”
*Please note that some names in the text above have been changed
to respect the confidentiality of certain interviewees who asked
that they not be identified.
Dr. Chan, Cecilia. Professor of Social Work, Department of Social
Work and Administration, Hong Kong University, Telephone:
28592043 (Interview date: October 2000)
Cheng, Wilson. Hong Kong Jockey Club, Information Secretary,
Telephone: 29668111 (Faxed Information: February, May, 2001)
Chew, Alice, * Details available upon request (Interview dates: 14
February, 17 March 2001)
Kwan, Edward, Certified Gambling Counselor, Telephone:
92172442 (Interview dates: October 2000, November (x2) 2000,
27 February 2001)
Dr. Leung, Grace. Professor of Psychology, Psychology
Department, Hong Kong University, Telephone: 28578225
(Interview date: 13 February 2001)
Li, Patrick, * Details available upon request (Interview date: 15
February, 19 April 2001)
Philps, John. Racing Editor, South China Morning Post (Racing
Post on-line edition), Telephone: 25652252 (Interview date: 14
Tse, Penny, Hong Kong Police PR Department, Telephone:
28666191, (Telephone Conversation, May 4, 2001)
Dr. Tsang, Fan Kwong. Senior Psychiatrist, Castle Peak Hospital,
Telephone: 24567111 (Interview date: 17 February 2001)
Yau, Vic. Assistant Secretary, Home Affairs Bureau, Hong Kong
Government, Telephone: 28351365 (Interview date: 19 February
„Working With Addicted Gamblers’, Department of Social Work
and Administration, Hong Kong University and the Iona College
Gambling Institute, Ontario, Canada. 30 September 2000.
Berman, L. and M.Siegel, Behind the Eight Ball: A Guise For
Families of Addicted Gamblers, New York: toExcel, 1985
Custer, R and H Milt. When Luck Runs Out, New York: Facts on
Morris, Jan. Hong Kong: Epilogue to an Empire, London: Penguin
Walsh, F. A History of Hong Kong, London: Harper Collins, 1997
PUBLICATIONS / ARTICLES:
American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (Washington DC) F63.0
Cheung, Carmen. “Legal soccer gambling is on the cards” Hong
Kong iMail, November 2000.
Cheung, Jimmy. “Overseas betting proposals too broad” South
China Morning Post, December 2000.
Kong, Lai-fan. “Freedom fears over clampdown on gambling”
South China Morning Post, November 2000.
Landler, Mark. “And they‟re off: The Hong Kong Jockey Club vs.
the Internet” International Herald Tribune, March 2001.
Moffat, Susan. “Hong Kong Jockey Club” Fortune Magazine,
Shui, Susan. “Banks to join offshore betting fight” South China
Morning Post, January 2000.
Zajc, Linda. “Jockey Club online betting goes under starter‟s
orders” South China Morning Post, October 2000.
The Wager, Harvard Medical School, Weekly Addiction Gambling
and Educational Report, Volume II, Issue 43
„The Gambling Bug‟ TVB Pearl, January 2001.
Thanks are due to Edward Kwan, who without his help this thesis would not
be possible, to Gene Mustain for his wonderful guidance, and to Eoin for his