Unlocking the World of Chinese Gambling
by Desmond Lam

Unlocking the World of Chinese Gambling by Desmond Lam

* This article was originally published in Global Gaming Business, September 2009. Updated 2011.

It is not hard to figure out why Chinese are known around the world for their high aptitude to gamble. You just need to look back through time and will quickly realize that the Chinese people have a long documented history of gambling. The first record of gambling can be traced back to the first Chinese dynasty some 4,000 years ago. Gambling was recorded in every dynasty since then. In fact, many modern games like lottery, pai gow, fan tan, and mahjong are thought to have originated from China. Simple but innovative ancient Chinese games like liubo, shi pai and gu pai laid the foundations for later Chinese gambling games.

From the middle of 1800s to early 1900s, Shanghai was a magnet that attracted many Chinese gamblers. They played a variety of local and foreign games including roulette in its large gambling complexes. These establishments could be found in the Shanghai International Settlement and Shanghai French Concession. At the same time, Macau’s Portuguese government legalized gaming in 1847 and hundreds of gambling dens began to flourish. While civil war in China eventually led to communist rule and hence the end of all commercial gaming, Portuguese-run Macau’s became a “permanent gaming region” in 1961.

Nowadays, legal lottery is available in most Chinese cities, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Singapore. In Singapore, for example, Toto and 4D are the most popular form of lottery gaming among its local Chinese residents. Modern horse racing betting is also available in Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, and on trial in Wuhan (China). Casino ships are anchored in Hong Kong and Singapore. Every week, these ships fetch thousands of eager ethnic Chinese from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore to gamble on their onboard casinos. What they call “a cruise to nowhere” actually means gaming on international waters to some people.

Macau, the Asia’s Las Vegas, has already overtaken Las Vegas as the biggest gaming city in the world today. More than 20 types of games are available in Macau’s 33 casinos. With a casino for every one square kilometer, Macau is officially a powerhouse of global gaming. In 2010, 25 million visitors entered its border and studies revealed that slightly more than 50% of these visitors claimed to have gambled in its casinos. Baccarat, or baak ga lok in Cantonese, is the game of the day. It accounts for more than 85% (mass plus VIP gaming) of Macau’s gross casino gaming revenue each year. In the next few years, analysts will be watching closely the rapid development of the two new integrated resorts in Singapore. These establishments have significant casino gaming components.

In fact, an examination of history shows a strong need for gaming entertainment among Chinese officials and commoners for thousands of years. The extensive establishment of games and gaming venues across Asia for Chinese people is indeed extraordinary. Surely, a strong demand for gaming must have led to the massive supply of games and gaming venues. To examine Chinese gambling would require us to look beyond Chinese gambling history. I believe culture plays a key role in Chinese gambling. But yet it is incorrect to say that Chinese culture has directly encouraged Chinese people to gamble more than any other cultures. On the contrary, traditional Chinese values as advocated by Confucius should have discouraged gambling since gambling, as a human activity, was deemed to be wasteful and could potentially lead to social disorder. In the past, social order is important for the management of large Chinese society; something that ancient rulers have always strived to achieve. In fact, gambling has been subjected to control and sometimes ban over the history of China.

Culture can take different forms and have different effects on people. A number of studies have shown that Chinese gamblers have exceptionally high illusion of control. They believe they can control the outcome of gambling events, be it baccarat, Black Jack, Sic Bo, or lottery. This characteristic of Chinese gamblers may have to do with the influence of Chinese beliefs and values. Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, folk religion, and ancient beliefs all play a crucial role in shaping modern Chinese people. Confucianism, in particular, laid the foundation for modern Chinese values.

It seems that ancient belief of heaven/earth and rituals to please the gods is a starting point for further development of Chinese people’s obsession with the supernatural (e.g. luck, feng shui, fate, and destiny). Three major religions, namely, Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism adopted many ancient beliefs and practices. While Confucius’s philosophies hold a central role in shaping modern Chinese thoughts and behavior, Daoism’s obsession with longevity and/or immortality has made the religion seems almost too supernatural. While ancient Daoism focused on The Way for individuals and harmony with the world, modern Daoism has evolved dramatically. Buddhism, an imported religion from India, also has its fair share of supernatural and magical folk tales (like Daoism). These three religion and/or philosophy (Confucianism, in particular) have, over thousands of years, shaped the thoughts and behaviors of Chinese people (also Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese) into the way they are.

One of the many Chinese traits that may have resulted from these influences is an external locus of control. Chinese people were found to have a higher external locus of control over their Western counterparts. It means that Chinese people believe that luck, destiny, chance, and powerful others control their lives more than themselves. An external locus of control can potentially lead to higher illusion of control on the gaming table. Superstition aggravates illusion of control. Chinese people’s unique form of superstition on lucky/unlucky objects, feng shui, and numbers has added to their high illusion of control. However, this has also somewhat enhanced the value (i.e. entertainment, fantasy, and escape) that Chinese people obtained from gaming. High illusion of control may then lead to high risk taking and/or more gambling. Chinese gamblers’ illusion of control is often portrayed in Chinese gambling-theme films. There are at least 60 Chinese gambling-theme films produced since 1960s and a number of television drama series that featured Chinese gambling as its main theme.

While culture plays an important role in shaping the Chinese people, external forces may also explain why Chinese people gamble as much as they are. The transition from poverty to prosperity, widening gap between the poor and rich, and negative real interest rate can all explain to a certain extent why Chinese people take such excessive monetary risks when they gamble in Macau. However, many nationally representative studies have found a large percentage of Chinese people in Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore claimed to gamble for fun and entertainment; and not for money. Very few studies, however, investigated the Mainland Chinese’s aptitude to gamble. We can, however, get some cues from those Mainland Chinese who gamble in Macau. Needless to say, they seemed to be most interested to beat the house and win the monies.

One thing for sure: To the Chinese, social gambling is a very common activity. There is no fuss about it. Mahjong playing, for example, is often conducted among Chinese worldwide. It is said to help the elder Chinese people to think better and a joyful thing to do during Chinese wedding dinners and even funeral wakes. It is a celebrative game for all Chinese people. Gambling is also perfectly alright for anyone, including the young, during festive periods like Chinese New Year. Perhaps these attitudes towards social gambling are a reflection of Chinese val

Date Posted: 09-Mar-2011

* Desmond Lam is an associate professor of marketing at the University of Macau. His expertise lies in Chinese gambling culture, psychology and management. Visit www.DesmondL.com.

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