By Gina Hotta
The streets still live in Bill Lee, giving him the skills to survive gang life while growing up as well as a workplace shooting in Silicon Valley. But the streets constantly draw him towards high-stakes risks, feeding a gambling addiction that has dogged Lee since he was nine years old.
Forthright and driven, Lee is principal of his senior-management search firm – a long ways from once being the driver for a street gang leader. At East Wind Books, Lee grips his latest autobiography Born to Lose: Memoirs of a Compulsive Gambler and reads with clipped words at a brisk tempo reflecting his working-class, immigrant background. “My lack of self-esteem originates in Chinatown where I was born and raised”, he states in a voice barely masking memories both harsh and loving, “and I wanted to share with people from different backgrounds about how it is to have a traumatic up-bringing where it is physically and emotionally unsafe.”
In Bill Lee’s San Francisco Chinatown, the soft thumping sounds of sewing machines drift from sweatshops. Here, Bill Lee’s mother worked, sometimes up to 16 hours a day, barely hanging onto her sanity. The sharp clacking sounds of mah-jongg parlors come from above where Lee’s father went to escape life – one that included abuse of the five Lee children. Bill Lee also escaped, “…out on the streets and at the playground, where gang members and bullies there were more predictable than my crazy family.” Chinese Playground is the name of Lee’s first book that documents the beginnings of his gambling addiction and his rough life in Chinatown
Bill Lee’s parents didn’t want another child. When an abortion failed, they tried to sell him off to a childless couple. The scars left on Lee come out in slow, measured words as he emphatically states, “I am slowly, through therapy, understanding how to take care of myself and deal with my basic belief that I am a burden and un-worthy”. Gambling can numb Lee to all of this.
But at one point in Lee’s life, gambling problems weren’t the worst of it. The old demons came out when Lee had to search for his runaway son.
“That’s exactly what he did”, Lee says, a mixture of shock and surprise still in his voice when asked if his son, Eric, got involved with gangs. “I had to go back to Chinese Playground, my old stomping ground, to find him. I had to contact my old acquaintances in Chinatown…They spread the word that Eric was not to be touched and that the gangs were not to recruit him.”
Lee has mixed feelings reviving old contacts, but states that, “I was desperate and scared. I didn’t know if Eric was dead or alive.” Lee says contacting Chinese members of the San Francisco Police Department helped him the most.
But even in the high-tech industry, old habits and haunts followed Lee.
In 1988 an armed man, dismissed by ESL for harassment, went into the defense contractor’s building. “You would think, with all the homicides I lived through from the Chinatown gang wars, that I would be desensitized to what was occurring, but we were in Silicon Valley, the last place I expected to contend with individuals being blown to bits.” Relying on his street instincts, Lee helped fellow staff stuck inside the building and assisted grieving families. In the aftermath, Lee gambled with a vengeance.
Lee recalls the cycle of addiction. After a seven-year gambling abstinence, he had a house and money for Eric’s college education. Seven months later, “it was all gone – every last cent. I blew all the money away day-trading in the stock market.”
Over the years, participation in the Gambler’s Anonymous program has helped Lee. The daily struggle over gambling is heard in Lee’s voice. “Everyone wants to be normal and not have a blemish. But, every time I think I am “normal” and that it is OK to gamble, then I know that I have to work the program more.”
He now shares his story with youths and their families. Addressing Chinese families in particular, Lee says that disciplining your kids in very negative ways is not an entitlement. “I basically tell the parents that there are real forces out there that will exploit your kids…give them a sense of control, of self-esteem, money. And that once they step across the line, that there’s no turning back.” After all, the streets are still chasing Bill Lee. And, the reasons Lee risks opening doors to all the old demons out there? “Giving guidance and hope.”