Viva Las Vegas!

Most people in La Vegas wouldn’t know Gong Xi Fa Cai! from Gung Hay Fat Choy! But they do know that Chinese New Year has become one of the most profitable events in Las Vegas, drawing thousands of Asian visitors and hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Executives say more money is bet during Chinese New Year than at any other time during the year. Casinos drape enormous banners with New Year’s greetings in Chinese and add tables for pai gow poker. They hold parties where managers hand invited guests red envelopes stuffed with money or special gambling chips adorned with the animal symbol of the year. At Caesars Palace, Celine Dion and Elton John are given a few days off so that Jacky Cheung can hold forth in the 4,100-seat Coliseum.

Most Chinese restaurants stay open longer, and add traditional New Year’s dishes or rename some regular ones with lucky or upbeat words. It is not unusual for a family to spend more than ,000 for a Chinese New Year dinner. The Wing Lei restaurant imported abalone at ,226 a pound and bird’s nest at ,600 a pound for this year’s festivities.

At the Bellagio hotel, the Conservatory display features live tangerine trees, a 45-foot-tall pagoda, and a mechanical pig with a moving eyes, tail and snout. “You’ll see a lot of Chinese lanterns hanging in groups of six because multiples of six are lucky numbers,” said the manager. “Everything here are multiples of six or eight, because those are the lucky numbers. Even the number of koi we have in our pond are multiples of eight. We want to maintain as much positive energy for luck.”

Las Vegas properties may now employ feng shui masters to advise on design and building plans, but in the past they didn’t understand their Chinese customers. When the MGM Grand Casino opened in 1993, patrons walked through a main entrance built to resemble the mouth of a lion, MGM’s corporate symbol. Asian gamblers complained and stayed away because the notion of walking into the mouth of a beast is considered unlucky. The company spent millions removing the lion. The Mirage casino built a high-limit gaming area that looked like a library. The Chinese word for book sounds like “lose”, so books have an unlucky connotation. Those books were gone within the hour.

Traveling to Las Vegas is the trend among younger, upwardly mobile Asians who want to travel while maintaining an important tradition of the holiday: gambling. “The Chinese New Year has always been a time for people to get together and play games, to celebrate good luck and good fortune. People like to get together and spend substantial amounts of money. Vegas helps keep up the tradition.”

Las Vegas ties to Asia have grown. Las Vegas companies spend billions on lavish hotel-casinos in Macau. Nevada opened a tourism office in Beijing, and local universities are building satellite campuses in China and Singapore. “Now the casino industry is being exposed to Asia in a big way, and Asia has been exposed to our casino industry, too.”

The importance of Chinese New Year to the casino industry is clear by the lengths to which properties go to attract Asian gamblers during the holiday, including some who are flown from Asia on private jets. “This is a merit system here. The highest quality players will get whatever they want. The Chinese are the highest and best quality players in the world, so they’ll have preference. [Excerpted from an article by Steve Friess in the New York Times on 21 February 2007.