There's a dizzying slide from playing for pocket money at neighbours' mahjong tables to owing millions to casinos. For housewife Sarah Ng (not her real name), it began 20 years ago when friends cajoled her into going to Macau to make a change from the usual gossip over the clatter of mahjong tiles. A HK$20,000 win from her first bet of HK$500 at the Jai Alai Casino had Ng hooked. Thrilled, she began frequenting Macau's gambling spots with her friends, initially at the weekends and then every day. 'We went in the morning and returned in the evening so our husbands didn't know we gambled in Macau,' she recalls. 'I felt as if I was in another world in the casinos. It was exciting just to watch other people play.' Ng regularly incurred heavy debts that over the years added up to more than HK$7 million. The 58-year-old begged, borrowed and sold her jewellery to pay off creditors. She even exhausted her accountant husband's pension. Although disappointed, he stood by her, but her daughter hasn't spoken to her in years. Gambling tends to be seen as a male preoccupation, but recent surveys have found an increase in women having a flutter - and getting into trouble. According to a poll by the Rehabilitation Centre for Problem Gamblers, nearly half of 1,488 women interviewed engaged in some form of gambling - a 13 per cent increase on three years ago. And of those who gambled, 12 per cent admitted it had become an addiction. The centre, a unit of the Industrial Evangelistic Fellowship (IEF), also found that casinos were the most popular form of gambling after mahjong. This supports a recent study by the University of Hong Kong's social work department, which found casino gambling was the most frequent activity among women seeking help at the city's 10 gambler counselling centres. IEF supervisor Franny Mok Yuk-lan attributes the increase in women patronising casinos to the gambling boom in Macau, where a number of slick, Las Vegas-style operations were launched after its gambling monopoly was dismantled in 2002. 'They see travelling with friends to gamble in casinos as part of their social life,' says Mok. 'The new casino-hotel complexes are packaged as entertainment resorts. People see gambling as a form of entertainment and are less alert to the dangers of becoming addicted, which also leads to domestic strife.' With some resorts providing children's facilities, mothers can have fun at the tables without worrying about their kids, she adds. Casino ships, which operate in international waters, have also become popular with female punters. 'To compete with casinos in Macau, casino cruises offer promotions such as buy-one-get-one-free tickets to attract customers,' says Lai Tze-kan, a counsellor at the Caritas Addicted Gamblers Counselling Centre. 'Housewives usually form close networks and enjoy sharing the offers with friends.' Women's descent into gambling hell often follows a similar pattern. Lai says most begin by playing mahjong to pass the time, but gambling often becomes a way to avoid dealing with psychological and emotional issues. 'Many problem gamblers are middle-aged housewives who play to cope with boredom,' he says. For 50-year-old housewife 'Cheung Wai', gambling was her way of adjusting to empty-nest syndrome. 'I used to play more rationally, but when my children grew up, I focused my energy on gambling,' she says. The excitement also offered relief from tensions in her marriage, albeit only temporarily. 'We ended up arguing more because of my gambling problem,' she says. 'I felt depressed and suicidal because I had no one to turn to after falling into debt.' Cheung became hooked on baccarat after her first visit to the Sands Macao. 'There was a lot of hype about the new casino. My mahjong partners in the neighbourhood invited me to go along and check out how luxurious it was,' she says. Like Ng, she found the prospect of easy money irresistible after winning big with her first bet and was soon making daily trips to Macau. She often gambled through the night. 'I forgot to go home,' she says. When she lost, Cheung tried to recoup the sum with one bet after another until she gambled away more than HK$200,000 in savings. In desperation, she turned to loansharks prowling the casino lobbies. When payment was due, she began borrowing from her sister. 'At first, she was willing to lend to me because I told her the loansharks would kill me if I couldn't repay them,' Cheung says. 'After a few times, the threats fell on deaf ears.' Since 2001 church and welfare groups have set up various centres such as the Prevention and Rehabilitation of Pathological Gambling Association, to provide counselling and behavioural therapy for problem gamblers. However, as with any kind of addiction, it's a long and tortuous road to recovery. What's more, the relapse rate for women gamblers is particularly high. 'Many can't resist peer pressure and fall into the trap again,' Mok says. Cheung, for example, stopped gambling after her daughter confiscated her ID card to prevent her from sneaking off to Macau. But she couldn't resist the temptation once her ID was returned and a neighbour boasted of a big win at the tables. Ng, too, suffered several reversals when a growing mountain of debt to loansharks forced her to tackle her compulsion. Promising her family that she would stop gambling, she worked as an office assistant for six years to pay off the money. The HK$2 million debt had almost been cleared when friends tempted her into joining them on a casino cruise, promising a fun experience with music and a buffet. After losing heavily, Ng went to Macau to try to recoup the losses, only to lose even more. She eventually lost her job when her boss found out she had borrowed money from a colleague. 'I didn't dare tell my husband that I'd been fired, so I pretended to go to work. In fact, I gambled in Macau every day,' she says. Casinos in Macau now provide self-exclusion agreements, which problem gamblers can sign to ban themselves from the premises. However, Lai urges managers to do more by displaying addiction warnings and counselling hotline numbers in the casinos, as well as setting up on-site counselling services, as is being mooted in Singapore. Urging a more proactive approach, Mok calls for a public education campaign to help people spot signs of compulsive gambling in the family. 'Many people aren't alert to the problem when early symptoms arise, and just help them pay off the debts,' she says. 'But if they're aware of the predicament, they can seek help earlier.' Chung Kim-wah, an assistant social science professor at Polytechnic University, wants more resources devoted to youth education as Hong Kong people tend to become hooked on gambling at a young age. 'Society's perception has changed. There's greater acceptance of gambling as a social activity, especially since soccer betting was legalised,' Chung says. 'Gambling means massive revenues for government coffers, but problem gambling also brings great harm to individuals, families and communities.' Having overcome her addiction with the help of a church group, Ng knows how the habit can tear a family apart. Her brother and daughter had to sell their homes to help clear her debts, and the latter has never forgiven her. 'My daughter stopped talking to me for four years and moved to Canada without telling me,' Ng says. Now she finds satisfaction working as a volunteer for others like herself. 'I'm determined to start a new life,' she says. 'I can't afford to lose my family again.'