Losing streak for Chinatown

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 April, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 April, 1996, 12:00am

Every hour a small crowd gathers outside Shark Fin House in Little Bourke Street, the heart of Melbourne's Chinatown. A bus with a crown logo arrives, the crowd boards, paying no fares, and the bus trundles towards one of the city's most controversial destinations.

Crown Casino, one of the largest in the southern hemisphere, offers entertainment in quality surroundings, bringing in tourist dollars as well as the cash of big-spending gamblers from Asia.

But its critics, including leading members of the Chinese and Vietnamese communities, say it is ripping the heart out of Chinatown, driving businesses to economic ruin and leading some punters, including Chinese gamblers, into such financial hardship they are losing their homes.

They claim up to 60 per cent of the clientele is Asian (Crown says its research shows 20 per cent is the actual figure) and they want government funds for a Chinese-language hotline for problem gamblers. Police believe Hong Kong and Macau loansharks linked to Chinese crime gangs are preying on casino losers, forcing them into crime and drug dealing if they cannot pay. Several high rollers believed to have Asian criminal connections have been identified by Melbourne police, according to reports.

'We pick up people who have had to sell their house, who lose their business, for example their restaurant,' Robert Chong, president of Melbourne's Chinese Social Services Centre, said. 'And we only have three social workers, so we are only picking up the tip of the iceberg.' The centre, with the Federation of Chinese Associations, wants to set up a Cantonese and Putonghua hotline offering anonymity to those being hurt by gambling.

'The culture of the Chinese gambler is they do not seek help because they are ashamed,' federation chairman Dr Ka Sing-chua says. 'The gamblers do not seek help, but their families come in when there is quarrelling between husband and wife because there is not enough money in the house.' Sergeant Steve Pierce of the Victoria Police Asian division said the casino's opening 18 months ago had ended illegal gambling in Chinatown.

'From our point of view it is quite good because it has eliminated the robberies and standover tactics that were part of that,' he said. 'We are identifying the same people [gamblers] in the casino. I think the actual organisations have gone out of business.' But Mr Chong says the end of illegal gambling - plus active recruitment by the casino in ethnic community clubs, including Chinese clubs, with incentives of free transport, free gaming chips and subsidised meals - meant more Chinese people were gambling.

'Illegal gambling, it was more restrained,' he said. 'Some elderly people, some middle-aged, but definitely no women would go there and not many young couples. They are dingy little joints. If you lost your money people would lend to you, but they knew your capacity to pay.' Mr Chong says it is a stereotype that Chinese people gamble more than others. But it is not a cultural tradition. Rather, he says, it is part and parcel of being a migrant, without social clubs and a strong family unit.

Earlier this month a public inquiry into gambling heard Crown Casino was having a 'catastrophic' effect on the Vietnamese community, which has one of Victoria's highest levels of unemployment and the lowest average income.

Phong Nguyen, a co-ordinator of the Springvale Indo-Chinese Mutual Assistance Association, said that before the casino opened, just two cases of family breakdown due to gambling were dealt with in 13 years. That rose to 170 cases, involving 600 people, in the past 18 months, including 95 family breakdowns, 35 selling the family home and several needing suicide counselling.

One Vietnamese gambler was recently jailed for five months after accidentally striking his baby son and punching his de facto wife, while demanding money from her.

Melbourne's casino was controversial before it opened, with accusations of rigged tenders and favouritism plaguing its establishment.

Politicians have demanded a Senate inquiry into the awarding of the casino's licence.

Crown, which reported a net interim profit of A$35.1 million (about HK$271.3 million) in the six months to December 1995, and draws about 20,000 visitors a day, was a major issue in this month's state election campaign, with Labor campaigning to end Victoria's 'casino culture'.

However, the Jeff Kennett government recorded a resounding victory.

The present 24-hour casino in the Yarra riverside World Trade Centre, with its 1,300 gaming machines, is only temporary. The permanent casino, opening in November, is a crane-draped building site so vast its ground floor includes a main street. It will be among the world's largest, with two hotel towers, 350 gaming tables, 2,500 gaming machines, 15 cinemas, 29 restaurants, an ice-skating rink, 1,500-seat entertainment centre and 5,400 car spaces.

Its opening is bound to fuel complaints from city businesses that Crown is killing their trade, especially given its plans for a retail precinct with perhaps 50 shops.

'The casino is a legitimate business and you cannot knock that, but they are providing very strong, almost unmatchable competition,' said Wellington Lee, a Chinatown pharmacist and Melbourne city councillor.

'Everyone around us says their business has gone down 20 per cent. Some have closed down altogether.

'Certainly the restaurant business and the speciality and non-essential shops have been affected. They are taking money out of the economy and something had to go. When the big casino is open it will be very difficult to compete with.' The casino's role in the Chinatown downturn has been highlighted in the media, particularly after the Golden Harvest restaurant's closure last month left staff locked out. However, the casino's government relations manager, Gary O'Neill, says inquiries with the owner's creditors showed he had long-standing debts which preceded the casino opening. Mr O'Neill, who says the casino's free shuttle bus drives through Chinatown because it is the best route for traffic and pick-up reasons, says claims about the health of Chinatown vary. He says there is no evidence of mass bankruptcies and restaurants often change hands there.

Richard Wong, secretary of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Victoria, says Chinese business people have to ensure Chinatown's survival by factoring in the influence of Crown Casino.

'So far Chinatown has been quite a significant tourist attraction and it has gone through 150 years of ups and downs and has survived,' he said. 'Now there is the impact of the casino. I think people acknowledge that, but it is up to the Chinese community, particularly the business community, to find a way for the survival of Chinatown.' Crown's offices in Hong Kong and Singapore find people who want to travel to gamble, offer them junkets including free accommodation, travel and meals and in return require them to lodge at least A$500,000 with the casino, to be turned over three to four times during their stay.

Premium players already have their own room in which baccarat is the most popular game.

In the new casino they will have 12 exclusive rooms and exclusive dining, with private rooms for the high rollers brought from Asia on junkets.

Some suites at the hotel will be comparable to those at the Peninsula. Crown is building a world class golf course for patrons, to lure wealthy Asians.

Closer to home, Crown Casino is now part of Melbourne, whether the businesses, the gambling counsellors and churches like it or not. It has set out to attract groups from all over the city and state and Mr O'Neill says it is patronising and racist to claim it has been targetting the Chinese community.

It sponsors many events, not just a few major sponsorship targets, ensuring wide publicity. The 1996 dragon boat races and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce Lunar New Year dinner were two of them.

Guests received lai see envelopes containing a Crown voucher. 'We were not wanting to be seen to be exploiting the Chinese community so we included an invitation to come, join Crown Club [like a frequent-flier club] and become eligible for a A$5 voucher, subsidised meals and drink,' Mr O'Neill says.

'Our campaign in the Chinese community was different in that it contained the lucky envelopes but they themselves contained nothing more than was offered to the wider community.

'A lot of people have been willing to have a go at us and I guess that is understandable in this environment. But no one has been able to sustain those accusations, including in parliament.'