Few scholars have studied the Chinese passion for gambling as deeply as Desmond Lam. In his latest book the University of Macau associate professor traces its evolution through the ages to the present day and the Macau phenomenon that has riveted the attention of the gaming world.
The recent publication of “Chopsticks and Gambling” further expands the extensive bibliography of Desmond Lam Chee Shiong on Chinese gambling, the mindset of the Chinese gambler and the history of a gambling culture that dates back thousands of years. Mr Lam, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Macau, has been studying and writing about Chinese gambling since the completion of his doctoral studies at the University of Western Australia in 2006, a time when most of the world knew little about it and the headline-making revenues it would subsequently generate. His first book, “The World of Chinese Gambling,” was published in 2009. “Chopsticks and Gambling,” released last month by Transaction Publishers, a US imprint that specializes in works on the social sciences, “explores the relationship of gambling with Chinese culture,” writes Robert McBain, chief financial officer of SJM Holdings, “drawing from history, sociology, psychology and religious studies, as well as popular culture and personal observation”. The Singapore-born Mr Lam recently sat down with Inside Asian Gaming to share some of its insights into Chinese gambling in the years since the liberalization of Macau, the only market on Chinese soil where casinos are allowed.
IAG: With the publication of your new book you have written numerous pieces in the past few years on Chinese gamblers. Why is it important to do so?
Mr Lam: When I graduated in 2005-06, my PhD dissertation actually focused on explaining why people gamble, so naturally I chose to apply for a job in Macau. In late 2004, when I came here for [a job] interview I was very surprised with the growth. I had never come to Macau before then. I also realized that there were a lot of gaps in understanding Chinese gamblers, especially from a Western perspective. So that’s when I decided this would be my area of research. At the same time a lot of people kept asking me [about Chinese gamblers], a lot were expatriates who came in 2005 and 2006 when the gaming here really exploded. To me, at the time, any research was a value-add to the industry.
Now, a decade after the liberalization of Macau’s gaming sector, do you think the world, or the Western part, to be precise, understands more about Chinese gamblers?
People are still learning. There are a lot of people looking at casino gambling, but there are less people looking at other forms of gambling by Chinese, for example, lottery gambling, sports gambling, online gambling or horseracing. When I was young my dad and mum gambled every weekend [on] typical games like mahjong or poker. It was very natural for me to see this was nothing bad, just a social activity. But Westerners can’t really understand why it is a social activity, so the whole purpose for me was to look further into it, to document some of the things that I have seen and to trace back some of the roots of Chinese gambling in an attempt to explain— probably there is no single explanation, but multiple explanations—why Chinese gamble. Some people say that it is in our genes, in our blood, which is an easy way to explain it. If you look at our history, which I try to investigate in depth in “Chopsticks and Gambling,” we have a very rich history of gambling, not just in our pursuit of the activity, but also on the development of games like lottery and card games, which could date back to the Tang dynasty.
You can look at it from a cultural perspective, but people will challenge that. We have three big religions—Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism—and none of them will tell you they advocate gambling. But they have certain aspects that relate to risk-seeking.
The most viable explanation of why we want to gamble is our environment—the progress of our society in a short time from poor to rich, from nobodies to somebodies, as well as the fact that achievement is based on how much wealth we have gained. In fact, some of the research that’s been done shows that [Chinese] gamblers almost treat the activity as an investment, and everybody wants to earn wealth quickly, most likely as a result of income disparity, which widens every year.
How is that different from non-Chinese gamblers?
Chinese gamblers are more serious than the Western gamblers in Las Vegas, for example, who are there for leisure and recreation. Whether it is at a gambling table or on the lottery there are various motivations. If you go to a casino, you want entertainment, you want satisfaction, and you want to win money. That’s not to say Chinese gamblers don’t seek entertainment value. However, it seems that they are particularly focused on the winning aspect, while in Western countries the leisure aspect plays a more important part.
The Chinese have been able to access casino gaming primarily via Macau, which also has been offering more non-gaming, family-oriented elements in its resorts. Have you noticed any subsequent changes in the habits of Chinese gamblers?
You won’t see much change in that between my first book and the latest one. There is more research on how they gamble and more in-depth research on the games, but you won’t see much difference in their values and their motivations. Right now, they obviously want more, they’re seeking more variety as Macau is diversifying. From the perspective of Macau, it used to only attract hard-core Chinese gamblers, and they really didn’t care about the service quality. But now they want more experiences, it’s slowly changing to more of a Las Vegas-type demographic, meaning they want to have a bit more fun when coming here.
Do you mean they are more demanding in terms of the complementary services and amenities the casinos provide? What about the variety of games?
They are starting to be more demanding. They want better quality. You can’t say what they want in terms of a variety of games as it’s a matter of supply and demand. If they want something it doesn’t necessarily mean we will give it to them. Because we are constantly supplying baccarat, they come and only play baccarat. That’s one side of it. And they also want to earn more money. So that’s why baccarat is still a good choice. At the same time we are also starting to see big gamblers who stay away from the VIP tables and opt for the massmarket ones because they prefer to be more anonymous. They want to stay below the radar.
Talking about the varieties of games, Chinese gamblers have been known for their preference of table games over slots. But more of the latter can now be found in markets like Macau. Do you expect or have your observed any difference in their preferences?
Fifty years ago, Las Vegas was predominantly table-game focused, but 50 years later, predominantly slots. The market will change, and the preferences of the people will change. But slots are a different demographic—the older people, younger people, people who are low risk-taking. I wouldn’t say we will always remain a tableoriented market. Right now, I don’t see any changes, but you never know the future.
How about electronic table games, which are growing?
They are the good in-between, which will be good for Macau due to the labor regulations as [the machines] require fewer people to manage. It’s a very good option. But if you are here to win—the primary motivation we see on Macau’s casino floors—then you won’t play slots or electronic machines. The interactivity and the illusion of control are important. Chinese enjoy it, and they [have a] higher illusion of control than Westerners.
What do you mean when you say ‘illusion of control’? You mean Chinese love to feel that they are in control at the games?
I wouldn’t say exactly in control. Chinese enjoy the interactivity and, for example, in baccarat they can feel the cards. Even though they know the result is set they feel that they can still somehow do something about it, transferring their luck, chi, or whatever, to the cards.
Have you observed any differences between gamblers from rural areas versus urban areas, or mass players from high rollers?
There is not a lot of research done on VIP and mass players. That’s why I say there are still gaps in our understanding. There’s still a lot to be examined. We’ve been seeing more research in the last five years, mainly focusing on casinos.
What are you expectations for “Chopsticks and Gambling”?
It is intended to help people better understand the gambling phenomenon and also to link it to our history. And the book targets Westerners because many didn’t have access to Macau as the phenomenon happened. This book is also more scholarly [than my first book], and everything I wrote is based on my own research or other research, not loosely based on observations.
We have talked a lot about Macau regarding Chinese gambling, and the book has a chapter about it.
There are [Chinese] gamblers in Las Vegas, in Australia and in Europe, but most people know about Chinese gambling through Macau. The chapter is more about how to balance the economic benefits with the social ills of gambling. Around the region countries also look into that, as they all want to be like Macau to a certain extent, the money is really attractive, yet they are very worried about the social ills. Communities are often against [gambling] while governments feel that it is good for growth. That’s why when Singapore liberalized its market one of the most important things was to come up with measures to take good control of the social aspects. Any jurisdictions which want to open up or liberalize will have to seriously consider the social aspects. In the past people didn’t really care, and now you see it’s happening.
The social ills or impacts of gambling on Chinese society are one of the main themes of the book. Is it getting worse as the Chinese grow richer and there is more access to gambling in different nations?
The consensus of the research put into this book is that the social impacts of gambling in the Chinese world are high compared to the rest of the world. They’re much higher. And it’s very difficult to treat, partly because Chinese do not share their gambling problems because of the “face” issue. In the historical view of gambling in China we’ve seen a lot of control over gambling dating back to the first dynasties. But gambling still occurred, prolifically, and officials were among those who gambled the most.
Do you think Macau tackles the social aspects well enough for other jurisdictions to follow?
I used to complain a lot in 2006 and 2007 when the industry was growing so quickly and there was this sudden explosion of people coming in. The Macau government has improved a lot, and it has placed a lot of emphasis on responsible gambling. It has tackled some of the ills that gambling leads to, the negative external factors that are not only limited to the gambling. Given Macau is so small, there are effects on transportation, effects on small businesses and effects on labor. The difference between the Macau government and the Singapore government is Singapore had something to look at. When Sands Macao opened in 2004 no one expected it would do so well. To be fair, the government and the society as a whole didn’t expect the speed of it. They thought they still had time to improve.
Macau will see the next wave of major casino projects opening from next year. Do you think the territory is ready this time for the social consequences?
This is a very hard thing to talk about. The labor issue is the big issue. How can you open those casinos without workers to fill them, and you can’t always fill them with Macau people? The government now wants to upgrade the locals, letting foreigners come in to fill the lower levels as casino dealers. To a certain extent that would be ideal.
Looked at in another way, from a Macau public perspective, does [the gambling industry] always need to grow? Talking about sustainable growth, how big do you want it to be? Do you want it to be as big as it can be, and if so, can we embrace it, or is it too big for us to handle? We have reached a stage where Macau is too small. We should ask ourselves if growth is always good. But right now, we have no choice. Manpower will be the issue. And whether the society can accept 30 million, 40 million or 50 million [visitors]. One of the solutions Macau is now seeking is Hengqin, whether it will be possible for tourists to stay in Hengqin and go to Macau for gambling.
What’s your next focus after “Chopsticks and Gambling”?
I’m actually writing an updated version of [“The World of Chinese Gambling”], and what I am interested in looking at are Chinese gambling rituals. This book is going to increase in thickness over the years when more knowledge is added to it. At this stage we’re looking too much into Macau. Hopefully, in the future we will be looking into the Chinese beyond Macau.