Why Do We Love to Gamble During Chinese New Year?

With Lunar New Year approaching, we start to hear the familiar sounds again: house-visits are often backgrounded by the clicks and clacks of mahjong tiles, and peals of laughter that follow the ripples of “Double! Double!” in a game of In-Between. But why do we gamble during this season? And is there a line to festive social gambling?

[Photo: Clauii Campos]

By Shannon Ling

“Chinese people love everything about [money]. We love making it, love spending it, we love giving it, we love receiving it, we love throwing it up in the air,” Malaysian comedian and actor Ronny Chieng describes in his stand-up comedy show Asian Comedian Destroys America

He also pokes fun at the Chinese greeting “Gong Xi Fa Cai.” Instead of “Happy New Year,” the phrase that rolls off our tongue means “Hope you get rich,” further exemplifying the cultural love for money. 

Chieng’s monologue underscores the spirit of Chinese people — especially during the festive season, we are rather money-oriented. Many people name red packets as their favourite part of the holiday; whether they are referring to the good luck and prosperity brought by the envelopes, or the extra pocket money inside, remains debatable. 

While nobody can deny that money makes the world go round, studies have found that Chinese culture in particular values money and material goods, much more so than other cultures. In a survey conducted by a global research firm IPSOS, 71 per cent of Chinese respondents said that they gauge their success by the material goods that they own.

Other than wishes surrounding wealth, many also enjoy gambling with their loved ones during the festive season, playing games such as Mahjong and Blackjack: house-visits are often backgrounded by the clicks and clacks of mahjong tiles, and peals of laughter that follow the ripples of “Double! Double!” in a game of In-Between.

Why gamble?

Beyond the thrill of shouting “Pong”s in Mahjong and “Picture”s in Blackjack, money remains an integral component to the excitement of gambling. Upon asking some of my friends about the relationship between money and gambling, they acknowledge that wagering money does not necessarily change the game per se, but adds “higher stakes,” “more to play for,” and even “a chance to win some money.” 

That is to say, the combination of our love for money, spending time with loved ones, and the thrilling excitement, results in social gambling remaining a crucial part of our festivities. 

On top of that, the games are often associated with skill and luck. Firstly, many feel accomplished when they go from not understanding the rules of a Dai Di game, to winning a group of skilled, experienced players. 

Besides the mastery of specific games and their rules, many also associate gambling with cleverness and readiness. Beyond chance, players can argue that winning a bet is rooted in skills such as “reading people, and competency in “mathematics” and calculation.

Secondly, superstitions state that the act of gambling itself, regardless of wins or losses, brings good luck into the new year. This stems from the belief that handling money will bring good economic luck.

Chinese gamblers also often follow the Chinese proverb that says, “If you don’t bet, you don’t know how lucky you are.” They then believe that winning reflects one’s good luck and blessing by supernatural forces. 

In fact, in many Asian cultures, luck is closely related to fate; according to Dr. Timothy Fong, an associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, “Chinese people think a lucky person should have obtained blessing from the gods and his/her ancestors.” With that, many believe that fate is ever-changing, and can be manipulated by practices such as donning red underwear, or having a good luck charm near their deck of cards.

Studies have drawn links between a person’s outlook on luck (and fate), as well as their prospects of gambling problems. Participants who held stronger beliefs in “external sources of luck,” and believed that their ever-changing fate can be controlled, reported more cognitive biases. These demonstrations of cognitive biases, such as perceived control, are then associated with more gambling problems.

[Photo: Albert Hu on Unsplash]

Social Gambling

We know, however, that casual gambling associated with the celebratory spirit hardly borders into addiction. To many, gambling is simply an indulgence during the New Year; insofar as money is involved, the games happen at home with loved ones, and are typically well-moderated — in that the games do not persist after the festive period, and do not involve large, uncontrollable sums being wagered. This group of players form social gamblers.

According to the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), social gambling is defined as “gambling for fun with friends and/or family.” This type of gambling differs from problem gambling, which is related to other serious addictions such as alcohol and drugs. The latter can cause harm to the gambler and the people around them.

Currently, the Ministry of Home Affairs takes a practical approach towards gambling, and will only regulate or prohibit when there is a risk to law-and-order, or potential to cause social harm.

According to the press release from Jul 12, 2021, it is also proposing to exempt physical social gambling among family and friends, subject to conditions that safeguard against criminal exploitation. They will, however, take enforcement action when this exemption is exploited.

But where do we draw the line, if any, between Chinese New Year social gambling, and problem gambling?

From ‘Bo’ to ‘Du’

In mandarin, gambling is referred to as Du Bo, which comprises of two components — Du (賭), wagering, and Bo (博), competition. That is to say, Du is attached more closely to betting and winning, while Bo emphasises “the entertainment value of the gaming activity,” and the leisurely aspect of it.

Tracing back to history, the earliest reported games were hinged on cognitive skills and strategies. Money was occasionally present, but not a crucial part of the gaming activity. The nature of gambling shifted from Bo to Du during the Song Dynasty, due to increasing urbanisation, and the growth of commerce and trading.

Similarly, disordered gamblers often start off treating the games as fun, social activities, only to find the pastime getting out of control. Oftentimes, there are phases that follow seamlessly after one another — social gambling leads to serious gambling, which precedes problem gambling. 

Likewise, the NCPG classifies time frames under “Winning Phase,” “Losing Phase,” and “Desperation Phase,” where the latter two involve a sense of redeeming oneself, causing more pathological gambling in trying to compensate for inevitable gambling losses.

How Problem Gambling develops. [NCPG]

Though the social to disordered gambler pipeline ranges from person to person, the fundamental premise of the model proposed by Blaszczynski and Nower (2002), professor of Psychology and professor of the Centre for Gambling Studies respectively, is the “3As of gambling opportunities.” These 3As that develop gambling problems are: early accessibility, availability, and acceptability.

Essentially, factors such as early experiences, and nearness to gambling, play into one’s likelihood to develop patterns of habitual gambling. On top of this, there is a myriad of other additional aspects, such as mental disorders that may cause players to seek emotional escape (often unconsciously) through gambling.

Harking back to the culture’s fondness for money and material goods, materialism also exacerbates the desire to win money and satisfy materialistic needs, making the demographic more vulnerable to gambling disorders.

Beyond the line

Some of us may think that gambling addiction hardly concerns us; after all, according to a survey conducted by the NCPG, the number of “potential pathological and problem gamblers remains low.”

Yet, the recreational activity easily escalates out of hand. The wins — the “escalating thrill[s]” and adrenaline rushes — make it tough to escape the entrapment and addiction. In one moment, the games involve a couple of cents here and there, but these amounts treble and multiply with urges to increase stakes, and a general atmosphere of taunts and laughter.

According to Singaporean comedian Mark Lee, in an interview with 8days.sg, even “offhand comments,” such as “Wah, you very suay leh,” can push some players beyond the line.

“You might think that it’s just an offhand comment, but hearing something like that, especially during Chinese New Year and after you’ve lost money, is a lethal combination,” he mentions during the same interview. 

On that account, insofar as many truly (social) gamble to celebrate Chinese New Year, or to pass time with friends with a thrilling game, certain factors can be attenuated to allow the games to remain casual, and to prevent escalations into problem gambling: these include limiting the duration spent playing, the number of rounds played, or even the amount of money actually involved.

Chinese New Year is supposed to be a time of happiness and celebration, as we usher out the old year and welcome the new one. The sounds of shuffling mahjong tiles should then remain in the background, behind peals of laughter and solicitous exchanges.

[Photo: Puck Milder on Unsplash]

For yourself and people around you, do look out for symptoms of problem gambling, and get help when you can. Symptoms include borrowing money to gamble, and feeling irritable when not gambling.

Should you face any problems with gambling, please know that there are hotlines and resources available to help you:

National Council on Problem Gambling
1800-6-668-668 (Mon to Thur, 8.30am – 6.00pm; Fri 8.30am – 5.30pm; Closed on weekends and public holidays)
Alternatively, visit their website for help with self-exclusion or casino revokes and limits.

WE CARE Community Services
3165 8017 (Mon to Fri, 10am – 6pm)

National Addictions Management Services
(Confidential live chat available)

6909 0628 (Mon to Fri, 10am – 6pm)