Chinese people, like Americans, like to gamble. Walk around any Chinese city at night and you’ll see working-class people on the pavement playing mah-jongg and card games for small amounts of cash. It’s an old vice. Nearly every dynasty in China’s long imperial history tried to ban or regulate gambling; during the 19th century, gambling dens flourished in China’s coastal cities. It’s no accident that Macau, a Chinese island adjacent to Hong Kong, has become the biggest gambling destination in the world. In 2012, Macau’s casinos took in $38 billion in gambling revenues—more than six times the cash raked in on the Las Vegas Strip that year.
But you don’t need to look across the Pacific for proof of a Chinese gambling culture. Up and down the Northeast Corridor, casinos compete fiercely for the wallets of recent and not-so-recent Chinese immigrants to the United States. Visit either of the homepages of the two largest casinos in the Western hemisphere, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, and you won’t see a link to a Spanish version of the site. Ditto for Russian, Japanese, and Arabic. You will have no trouble locating the Chinese version, however, which entices prospective customers with promises of Chinese-speaking dealers, Chinese buffets, and occasional events like the Miss New York Chinese Beauty Pageant.
American casinos attract some high rollers from the Middle Kingdom, but more often than not their Chinese customers are of modest means. For this second group, buses from major Chinese population centers serve as a vast circulatory system for people and cash, ferrying thousands of patrons to and from Chinatowns in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston on a daily basis. On any given day, over 60 buses leave New York for Mohegan Sun alone. These buses acquired considerable notoriety when one of them careened off a stretch of I-95 in the Bronx shortly before sunrise in March 2011. A metal pole supporting a road sign sheared the bus lengthwise from end to end. Fifteen people died, most of them Chinese immigrants.
But the buses roll on. And I was curious: two years after that grisly incident, who’s making the pilgrimage to the Northeast’s gambling meccas? I began where I imagined many Chinese immigrants would begin: the World Journal, the major daily for Mandarin speakers in New York. There I found many ads touting package deals, most of which included transportation, a gaming coupon and a meal voucher. I also found bus schedules. I decided to use the company with the most round trips, Golden Globe Travel. Golden Globe didn’t list a website, and my calls to its phone number went unanswered, so I resolved to simply show up at the address it had supplied in its ad.
This was how I found myself on the corner of Prince Street and 40th Road in Flushing, Queens, on a Saturday afternoon in April. Flushing, if you haven’t been, is a dense neighborhood at the terminus of the 7 Train, just east of Shea Stadium. It is the former site of two World’s Fairs and a trash-burning operation that F. Scott Fitzgerald described poetically as “the Valley of Ashes” in The Great Gatsby. Today it’s home to New York’s second-largest Chinatown after the famous one in Manhattan.
Flushing is not a peaceful place; actually it’s fucking crazy in that way Chinatowns often are, and at first I found myself a little disoriented by the pedestrian crush and the din and fumes of the traffic. I walked the advertised block of 40th Road and didn’t see a sign for Golden Globe, which left me concerned that I had misread the address. I asked a waiter smoking outside a noodle shop where the buses to the casinos left from, and he made a broad, sweeping gesture with his hand. He was right: my interest in signage had kept me from noticing that the entire length of the block was lined with buses going to casinos. There were buses to Foxwoods, Tropicana, Saratoga, Seneca, and many other destinations I hadn’t heard of. If you wanted to go gambling on this lovely afternoon, you could have your pick of any of the major casinos north of Washington and East of the Mississippi.
I wanted to take a bus to Mohegan Sun because it had the best Chinese-language website of any American casino. I had gone there a few times when I was in graduate school and had found it equal parts exhilarating and depressing. It didn’t take an especially perverse mind to see the black humor in a casino designed around themes and concepts from traditional Native American spirituality. (Could there be anything more unlike a communion with nature than an evening in a dank and byzantine megacomplex crammed with slots and fast food chains?) But I hadn’t seen a bus to Mohegan Sun yet; and shortly after 1 PM, when the other buses had pulled away, I began to wonder if I’d missed my chance and would have to wait another hour.
Then a coach pulled up—white, with no markings or logos other than the word charter in the upper corner—and a crowd of mostly Chinese people converged around the door. “Where are you going?” I asked in Mandarin. Most of the crowd ignored me; a few people looked at me like I was insane; finally someone said, “Mohegan” in English. “Can I come?” I asked. This caused some titters but earned no one’s consent, so I repeated the question. “Talk to her,” someone instructed at last, and pointed towards a neatly-dressed woman whose lanyard and clipboard suggested she wasn’t here for fun. “To Mohegan Sun?,” I inquired. “Do you have a kupan?” she asked back at me. It took me a moment to realize “kupan” was not one of the tens of thousands of Chinese words I never learned, but the English word “coupon.” She wanted to know if I had clipped one out of the newspaper. “No,” I apologized, preparing to grovel. “Okay, get on the bus,” she said in a vaguely annoyed way in English.
Feeling pretty pleased with myself, I sat down in an open seat across from the bus driver. “That’s reserved,” the woman with the clipboard chided me impatiently, “try seat 33.” (I later learned that the front of the bus is reserved for regulars.) I walked back to 33, which I found to be occupied by an unfriendly looking heavyset man. I asked if I could sit in the vacant seat adjacent to him. He waved me off wordlessly and gestured to the next row up, where a wiry guy dozed against the window. I settled in next to the wiry guy and checked my e-mail; a few minutes later, I looked up to find the woman with the clipboard standing over me. I braced myself for another reprimand, but instead she asked for the bus fare, an astonishingly low $13 round trip.
I exhaled and relaxed back into my seat. The overhead TVs blinked on and the opening credits of a movie called Dance of the Wolf began playing. I had a moment of wild elation during which I thought that this would be a poorly produced adaption of Dances with Wolves, wherein China’s Kevin Costner learns the ways of Kyrgyz herdsman until the imperial army obliterates them all; but it turned out to be a detective thriller set in what looked like a rich enclave in the American South during the 1930s, only everyone was Chinese and all the cars on the road were antique black roadsters. Uninterested, I looked around and saw that the wiry guy had woken up.
“Is this your first time at Mohegan?,” I asked hesitantly in Chinese. He looked at me with confusion and said, “No English.” I asked again, and an expression of surprise crossed his face. “You speak Chinese!” he exclaimed. “Well, a little,” I replied. “That’s very interesting,” he said philosophically. We discovered we had a minor connection: he was from Guilin, a city in Guanxi province famous since the Tang Dynasty for its scenic mountains and fragrant Osmanthus groves. I had flown to Guilin one weekend during my first summer of language study in China. I wanted to escape the chaos and pollution of Beijing, which had grown more intolerable as the summer dragged on. In the days leading up to my flight, I had come to think of Guilin in semi-magical terms. Guilin, I had told myself, will revitalize you with its pure, vivifying climate. Actually, Guilin turned out to be beastly hot and barely less smoggy than Beijing, and the scenic river was jammed full of barges which were in turn jammed full of Chinese tourists. Still, it was something to talk about with my new friend, who I’ll call Mr. Li. (I have doubts about Mr. Li’s immigration status, so I’m not using his real name.)
Mr. Li turned out to be both very opinionated and very articulate, and displayed an almost breathless compulsion to compare China and America in virtually every possible respect. We had been chatting only a few minutes before he bemoaned the widening wealth gap in China, which he correctly noted was worse than in the United States (“still pretty big”) and Europe (“more egalitarian”). He also commended the American government for its commitment to intellectual property rights. I was surprised to learn that Mr. Li had only been in the United States two months and spoke only a few words of English (one of which was “coupon”). He said he’d come to Flushing on a visa procured by his father, who had lived in the United States for eight years and had a Green Card. But it wasn’t his first trip abroad, he said; he had lived in Europe at one point. As for Mohegan Sun, this was his second visit: he had gone once with his friend a few weeks ago, and had decided to return on his own.
I was enjoying the ride so far. Mr. Li seemed like a fun traveling companion and I liked hearing his take on the world. Soon the conversation hit a rough patch, however. I asked Mr. Li if he felt he had mostly adjusted to life in the United States, and he responded, “Well, I think so. I like white Americans very much.” Sensing imminent peril, I tried to change the subject. “What food do you miss most since you’ve—?” “Black people, on the other hand” Mr. Li continued ominously as I scrambled to translate “tolerance” and “pluralistic society” using the bilingual dictionary on my phone.
A reprieve came unexpectedly from the seat in front of me: “You must not show prejudice!” warned a middle-aged Chinese woman before Mr. Li could finish his sentence. The top of her head fell about a foot short of the seat height, and she faced us looking backwards through the gap between the headrests. “I’m not prejudiced,” Mr. Li said defensively, “it’s just I’ve been robbed once and—.” The woman cut him off again. “You must not show prejudice, you will get in big trouble!” This set off a sharp volley of escalating retorts and counter-retorts, which I tried to defuse with a line I’d heard countless times in China: “You see things are complicated because of our history,” I interjected. Mr. Li turned to me and remarked coolly, “Your history is only 250 years old. How complicated can it be?”
That shut me up. I decided to turn my attention to Dance of the Wolf, which appeared to have undergone a dramatic plot twist that required all of the principal characters to join the military. This development was particularly difficult to follow given that the film continued to be set in a Chinese version of Savannah, Georgia. One of the principal characters was played by a ridiculously gorgeous young woman, whose heavily made-up face seemed to float like a disembodied mask above her naval uniform. It seemed to me that she would have been more convincing as a pinup model in a military-themed wall calendar than she was in her actual role as a midshipman who solved crimes and drove a black Bugatti.
An hour had gone by. We crossed the New York border into Greenwich, Connecticut. I saw beautiful homes overlooking the Long Island Sound. These prompted Mr. Li to remark, “I would buy one of these if I could. I would never buy a house in China, however. You can pay all the money you want, get all the documents you want, and still at bottom it’s the property of the state.” Then, in something of a non-sequitur: “Only in China is a person punished for stealing a thousand yuan, but rewarded for embezzling a million.” These reflections set off in Mr. Li the impulse to weigh on practically every political sensitive issue in contemporary China, ranging from the “real” reason for the fall of Chongqing mayor Bo Xilai to the fortunes amassed by high government officials—and even speculation that the Chinese government owned the Chinese-language programming that broadcast on US televisions, “because they never discuss Falun Gong.” The conversation eventually digressed into a furious debate between Mr. Li and the middle-aged woman in the row ahead, whose name I had learned was Mary, about whether the United States had military personnel stationed in Taiwan. Mr. Li was right on this one.
Two hours had passed. We were now deep into Connecticut. Some explosions flashed across the TV screens, then some text scrolled by briefly. The TVs went dark, and a few seconds later the opening credits of Dance of the Wolf appeared again. Mr. Li was explaining to Mary how fancy hotels in China stocked the rooms of high-level officials with reams of pornography, and set aside special rooms where VIPs could gamble. “Isn’t gambling illegal on the mainland?,” I asked. “It is,” Mr Li said, sounding suddenly very somber. “I was arrested twice for it.”
This seemed to me a remarkable confession. “How did they catch you?,” I asked. “I was too good,” Mr. Li explained. “I won too much money and then the other players called the police. You’re allowed to gamble with less than 2,000 yuan, but people go over that all the time. Normally it’s fine, but I was too good and they reported me out of revenge.” “How did you get to be so good?,” Mary asked Mr. Li in Chinese. There then ensued an extensive discussion of gambling techniques, most of which I found completely incomprehensible. At the end of this, Mary turned to me and said, in English, “You should listen to him. He’s very smart. He knows shortcuts.”
Now Mr. Li addressed me: “My boss used to give me 100 yuan after work every day and tell me to go double-or-nothing with the money. I did this almost every night for four years and always made a profit.” “Are you going to do that tonight?” I asked. “Well, I’ve got the coupon, so I’m going to go double-or-nothing with it until it’s time to go home.” Mary pulled me aside, apparently with a fresh take on Mr. Li. “That’s stupid,” she confided in English. “Don’t follow his example.”
Mr. Li looked like he felt left out, and said suddenly to Mary, “I have a question.” He then spoke very fast, and I struggled to follow his words. When he finished, Mary made an “X” with her hands and said in a low voice: “Don’t do it. They follow everyone with cameras here. You’ll get caught.” Mr. Li replied, “I’m not saying I’m going to do it, I’m just wondering if—.” “Don’t cheat, they’ll get you,” Mary interrupted. Mr. Li leaned back in his seat. “The problem with American casinos,” he said reflectively, “is that you can’t simultaneously bet at multiple tables, like in Macau.”
I looked at my watch. It was now 3:45. Dance of the Wolf had cycled back to a slapstick interlude in which the gorgeous naval officer and a man who was either her love interest or her squadron leader shared a meal at a fancy French-style restaurant. European dishes like steak and pasta arrived at their table; they made exaggeratedly quizzical faces, and then began to slurp and paw at the food like in some Roman farce. “This movie is great,” Mr. Li said.
The bus pulled onto the access road to the casino. Mary turned to face me again and without prompting offered up gambling tips in a tone that reminded me of the final speech of a war film. She shared an elaborate theory of when you should and should not play blackjack, which was somehow related to the tidal tables, and she warned me never to play slots. She also advised me to change tables if I ever won two games in a row, because luck migrates from table to table, and when you think you’re on a hot streak your luck has already moved on. Finally, she instructed me: “Whatever money you make, don’t put it in the bank. Spend it on things you like. If you save it, you’ll want to gamble it, and you’ll keep going back again and again until you can’t stop.” I found this unexpectedly poignant.
Our coach reached the parking lot just before 4PM. It seemed like we had been on the road a very long time considering the trip was only 120 miles. Only on the way back did I realize that the bus was traveling at least 5 miles below the speed limit. Given the history of this route, I could hardly blame them for being extra cautious.
As we disembarked from the bus we were separated into two groups: those with coupons, which was most of the bus; and those without coupons, which was me and two Ecuadorian women from Queens named Linda and Vicky. The coupon group passed immediately into the casino, whereas Linda, Vicky, and myself bounced from counter to counter until we found a Mohegan Sun representative who could procure for us a fresh set of “Asian coupons.” I was happy to do without the coupons, but the casino staff were graciously determined to put on equal footing with the rest of the passengers on the bus. At some point during this process of coupon-procurement, Linda became separated from Vicky and myself. Vicky went off in search of Linda, but before doing so she grabbed my arm and said with surprising emotion, “Do not leave here without us.”
Coupons in hand, Linda and Vicky melted into the crowd, leaving me to fend for myself. It was half past four. We had to be back on the bus at nine. I went in search for Mary and Mr. Li, but Mohegan Sun is absolutely fucking enormous and I eventually gave up looking. I made friends with a Chinese dealer, who explained to me that Chinese tourists and recent Chinese immigrants mostly played baccarat and a few traditional Chinese games like sic bo and pai gow, whereas Chinese people who had been living in the United States for a while preferred blackjack. This was consistent with what Mary and Mr. Li had told me of their plans for the evening.
Roaming the casino floor, I found the mix of people pleasantly cosmopolitan. There were Cantonese tables, Mandarin tables, and English tables; but also Chinese-speaking dealers dealing to English speakers, and English-speaking dealers dealing to Chinese speakers, and lots of mixed tables. “Of course I like this table,” I heard a heavily-accented Chinese voice say in English, “you people are good luck!”
One thing I noticed again and again was that the Chinese patrons of Mohegan Sun were the most polite, the most friendly, and the least drunk of all the guests at the casino. They unfailingly let me sit with them as they gambled, and they didn’t mind me chatting with them in Mandarin even when their English was clearly better than my Chinese. (Only once, when I sat down at a pai gow poker table and asked an elderly Cantonese couple how the game worked did I get a cold shoulder, although in their defense I probably came off as a real twit.) And Mohegan Sun returns the favor: there are Chinese dealers, Chinese customer service agents, Chinese greeters, Chinese-style tableware on sale at the gift shop, and an impressive spread of Chinese food (including some decent dim sum). Even the Dunkin Donuts put up a sign in Chinese characters.
Over the course of the evening, I spoke to a lot of Chinese people about gambling. I asked them whether they thought Chinese people liked gambling more than other nationalities and, if so, why. Most people said, yes, Chinese people do like to gamble, and offered up tradition as an explanation. A few had more interesting ideas. One older man told me he thought the Chinese liked to gamble because they were luckier than other people, a claim I found both moving and strange given what he had probably lived through Another speculated that Chinese gambling culture was a holdover from a time when there were limited opportunities to grow wealthy through talent or hard work.
The hours passed. I won $25 at “mini baccarat” and decided to call it a day. At 8:45 I made my way back to the bus lot. I had a moment of panic when I realized I couldn’t find my return ticket, but the woman with the clipboard rolled her eyes and said, “Yes, I remember you.” Others started to dribble in. Linda and Vicky arrived first. I asked them how they did. Vicky said, “Oh, I didn’t play. I came here for the shopping.” Next Mary showed up, carrying several shopping bags. At first she said she spent most of the evening relaxing at the buffet, but later she boasted that she’d won $70 at blackjack. More people filed on. A man who I didn’t recognize sat next to me and immediately began speaking loudly into his Android in Cantonese. Then the doors closed and we left. I looked around: Mr. Li was not on the bus. “Oh, he probably just blew through his coupon and came back on an earlier bus,” Mary speculated.
On the ride back, Mary narrated her life story without interruption for two hours—the entire duration of Dance of the Wolf. Or at least she said it was her life story. It seemed more like a pastiche of scenes from pulp romances and Chinese cinéma vérité. She had spent her early childhood on a collective farm, but had been largely insulated from the depredations of the Great Leap Forward because her father, a prominent tailor, had had an influential French customer who carried water with Chairman Mao. With Mao’s blessing, Mary had moved to Hong Kong when she was 11, but there her French host family had disowned her, and she soon found herself falling for a handsome older man from Taiwan. She became pregnant at 13, and they eloped to Europe, and from there to New York, where her first child was born. Mary’s narration became more disjointed when she reached this point in her story, but I understood to her to say she had enrolled in the NYPD Police Academy, gotten an associates degree in accounting from Baruch College, and opened a high-end tailoring business. Along the way, her husband became her ex-husband.
I asked Mary what she thought of Mr. Li. Her opinion seemed to have soured over time. “I think he isn’t a good quality person. Did you hear him say he was arrested twice? If you’re a gambler in China, you’re not a good person. I don’t think he’s very well-educated.” (That last comment I read as sour grapes over Mr. Li’s knowledge of world affairs.) “Besides,” she continued, “I don’t think he is very honest. He says he’s been to Europe. Do you believe him? I wouldn’t be surprised if he used a she tou to get into this country.” She tou—a snakehead, a human smuggler.
I was sad to hear these things from Mary. I wanted to believe that Mr. Li’s stories were true. I also wanted to believe that Mary’s life story was genuine. But I could not shake the feeling that a kind of fabulism and self-invention had come to play an important role in the lives of people like Mary and Mr. Li. Like the New Yorkers who passed through the Valley of Ashes on the way to West Egg 90 years ago, they wanted to be winners.
After we arrived in Flushing, I said goodbye to Linda and Vicky and thanked Mary for her advice and company. Before we parted ways, I asked Mary why she thought Chinese people liked to gamble. “Oh, they don’t like to gamble,” she answered. “They just think they’re too smart. They think they can win and win. But they don’t enjoy it. I don’t enjoy it.”
That seemed like a fitting note to end the evening, so I got up out of my seat and began gathering my things. But it turned out Mary also had a question. She asked: “Are you going back to the casino tomorrow?” I did a poor job concealing my surprise. “I don’t think so,” I said. “Once a weekend seems like enough.” “OK,” Mary replied. “But if you change your mind, don’t go to the same casino two days in a row. It’s bad luck. Foxwoods is also good. The bus leaves from the same place.”
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