Seattle poet Jane Wong shares the cost of gambling in new memoir

Through one Asian-American family's experience, 'Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City' highlights the unspoken struggles of addiction.

Jane Wong holds a bouquet of flowers

Seattle poet Jane Wong's memoir exposes the toll gambling addiction takes on Asian American families. (Helene Christensen)

This story was produced for High Country News and first published on June 1, 2023. It is republished here with permission.

East of Los Angeles, in San Gabriel Valley, Asian Americans make up more than half of the population. The casino buses aren’t hard to find here; they run back and forth from Las Vegas and Southern California’s many gambling houses, picking up passengers in the parking lots of Asian supermarket chains like 99 Ranch. They’re run by companies with nondescript names like Da Zhen and QH Express. The buses are often unmarked and hard to find on the web, because their older clientele doesn’t often speak English and therefore doesn’t use the internet.

The companies are frequently resented by city councils and residents alike, because the buses clog up traffic and the crowds of gamblers are regarded as a nuisance. Safety is also an issue; as reported in The San Diego Union-Tribune, 25 passengers were injured in 2018, when a bus overturned at 4 a.m. in downtown Los Angeles on the way back from Pala Casino in San Diego County.

Gambling addiction is a well-documented problem among Asian Americans. Social workers and academics point to the pressures and obstacles that low-income, non-English-speaking immigrants face — the loneliness and the lack of bilingual treatment options for problem gambling. Others blame the gaming and hospitality industry, which targets Asian Americans with special deals on transportation, meals and gambling vouchers.

In Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, her new memoir, Jane Wong doesn’t deeply investigate the causes of this blight on Asian American immigrant communities. Instead, she illustrates the heavy toll that gambling addiction can take on families by describing her own experiences: “(M)y father played all night in Atlantic City. He did not stop to eat or go to the bathroom or ask where his family was. My father owned a Chinese American takeout restaurant on the Jersey shore, and we would lose this one asset from his gambling. … When we didn’t go to Atlantic City with him, he’d disappear for days, sometimes a week. My mother ran the restaurant without him, her arms scraping the fryer, grime peeling like bark. Her anger: strips of wonton wrappers seething in that fryer, slow and dangerous.”

Eventually, Wong’s father leaves the family. “That day was like any other,” writes Wong. “I went to school. My mother slept, since she’d started working night shift for the United States Postal Service. … But he — my father — was gone. Just like that.”

The consequences of her father’s abandonment hang over Wong and her family for decades. Her mother, lovingly depicted throughout the book, works as a mail sorter to pay the bills after Wong’s father gambles away the family restaurant. As an essential worker, she continues to work overtime at night when COVID-19 arrives, risking serious illness and death. And their father’s abandonment haunts his children into adulthood. In an especially heartbreaking scene, Wong’s brother, now grown up, visits his father, hoping to develop a relationship with him through watching the NBA playoffs together. But his father only turns him away, claiming to be “too busy.” When Wong recalls her father’s love for playing Ping-Pong with his friends, she describes it as a rare example of him expressing joy in her presence. “More often than not, he would refuse to use words,” she writes. “He’d just grunt like a rock falling off a truck bed. Who knows, maybe I learned my silence in school from him.”

Jane Wong. (Chona Kasinger/High Country News)

Wong pokes fun at her lingering “daddy issues,” but her relationships with men tend to echo her dysfunctional relationship with her father. After a yearlong romance, one boyfriend leaves for work, and, days later, breaks up with Wong, telling her “he never loved me … none of it was real.” In one particularly disturbing interaction, Wong is propositioned in a used bookstore by a middle-aged white man, who offers her $1,000 cash for a night together. In these painful episodes, the reader can’t help but see shadows of the “nonchalant disregard”  Wong’s father had for her when she was a child.

Wong offers no theories as to what drove her father to behave in such pathological ways. But the reader learns that her parents’ marriage was an arranged one, and it’s unclear whether the two were ever in love. Perhaps marital strife, combined with economic pressures, contributed to Wong’s father’s uncontrollable desire to gamble. Wong cites a 2016 article by Michael Liao entitled “Asian Americans and Problem Gambling,” which theorizes that “the impulse to gamble” is “tied to matters of control.” Wong adds, “Among vulnerable communities who may feel powerless in their everyday lives, this is one way to take action.”

Do a quick Google search on “Asian marketing jobs,” and you’ll find Las Vegas-based postings from companies like The Venetian and Caesars Entertainment at the top of the list. But while big casino marketers might target Asian Americans, they don’t always succeed. Lucky Dragon, for example, was deliberately designed to capture Asian high-rollers, employing feng shui and Asian street food and marketing itself as Las Vegas’ first Asian-themed resort experience. It opened in 2016 only to close in January 2018, becoming one of the “shortest-lived casino ventures in the history” of the city, according to Lucky Dragon would reopen in 2020 under new ownership but then fold again in late 2022.

Though the roots of Wong’s father’s addiction remain mysterious, the family’s response to losing their patriarch to gambling is admirable. Today, Wong teaches creative writing at Western Washington University and is an acclaimed poet. Her mother stuffs Wong’s second book, How to Not Be Afraid of Everything, into her work bag and shows her co-workers on the night shift at the post office. “My daughter was in the New York Times,” her mom says. “Can you believe it?” In a video in which he reads a scene from one of Wong’s published essays, her brother “talks about how he wants to be a great dad, to loosen the weight of his own relationship to his father.” “The video was too tender, too generous,” Wong writes. “I couldn’t share it.”

Wong’s loving portrayal of her mother and brother and her bracingly honest account of her own struggles in the aftermath of her father’s poor choices illuminate the lasting damage gambling can do to families. The memoir also shines as an ode to working-class Asian immigrants and the pressures and dangers they face without complaint, pressures that, to their American-born children, seem unendurable.  

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Leland Cheuk

Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently No Good Very Bad Asian. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, NPR and Salon, among other outlets.