Las Vegas Courts A High-Roller: The Asian Gambler

LAS VEGAS, Nev. - While Lou Rawls performs at the Golden Nugget and exotic showgirls romp at the Stardust, a packed showroom at the Desert Inn Hotel and Casino is anxiously awaiting the arrival of Mr. Cucumber from Taiwan.

"Ladies and gentlemen!" the master of ceremonies barks in Chinese as the band cranks up. "That superstar king of Taiwan comedy, Hu Gua!"

The crowd cheers. The tuxedo-clad Chinese performer, whose stage name means "cucumber" in Chinese, storms onto center stage through a flood of pulsating lights and billowing stage smoke.

Hu Gua, the "Johnny Carson of Taiwan," launches into a snappy Chinese tune. "Oh, he's good," one woman swoons. "He's the king."

It is a sign of the changing times on the Las Vegas Strip. Where Liberace, Wayne Newton and Sammy Davis Jr. once ruled, the marquis now blare with names like Hu Gua, Ma Shih-li and Yang Lieh.

Las Vegas - that paradigm of American excess and decadence - has discovered Asia.

Stung by seesawing oil prices, competition from Atlantic City, N.J., and a moribund U.S. economy, Sin City has turned its attention toward Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other booming Asian locales in search of gamblers.

Instead of Middle Eastern potentates or Texas oil barons, it is the Asian gambler who has become not only the most sought after high-roller of the '90s, but also, with the growth of the Asian community on the West Coast, the low-roller as well.

"They gamble everyday; they wager against each other; they play hard," said Terry Lanni, president of Caesars World Inc., which owns Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

As the world economy shifts toward the Far East, the ripples are being felt here in this opulent outpost in the desert.

Casinos are courting the Asian gambler with everything from $6 overnight bus tours from Los Angeles' Chinatown to all-expense paid junkets out of Jakarta, Indonesia, Taipei, Taiwan, and Seoul, South Korea.

The largest casinos, such as Caesars Palace and the Mirage, have opened yearround marketing offices in the Far East, and most have introduced Asian games into their repertoire, such as pai gowand sic bo.

"The business from Asia has just exploded incredibly," said Desert Inn President Kevin Malley. "They are the No. 1 gamblers in the world right now."

Old-timers around Glitter Gulch say the importance of the Asian gambler to Las Vegas has been mounting for the past two decades.

Far Eastern gamblers have enjoyed a long-standing reputation as loyal and persistent players.

But it was only in the 1980s, as the Japanese gross national product nearly tripled to the $3.1 trillion mark and the Taiwan stock-market index grew eightfold in the space of four years, that the pursuit of the Far Eastern gambler reached fever pitch.

The last five years have seen casinos scurrying to outdo each other with ever more opulent Asian parties, Asian gaming areas and Asian restaurants. Caesars Palace even installed a Buddhist shrine for convenient prayer next to its Roman temple.

Las Vegas also exerts a powerful allure for Asian visitors from the gray industrial centers of the Far East, who are fascinated by not only the gambling (illegal in most of Asia), but also the excessive vision of opulence that pervades the city.

"Everyone wants to come to America to become wealthy," said Ling Chuang, 24-year-old Alhambra, Calif., student who was on her first visit to Las Vegas. "This is America. It is so prosperous, like an illusion."

The biggest casino market is still the domestic one, but Asian gamblers exert a power that far exceeds their numbers.

Malley estimated that 90 of the casino's top 100 gamblers are Asians and about 45 percent of the casino's revenue comes from the Pacific Rim. "It's not just limited to the Desert Inn," Malley said. "The same is true of Caesars, the Mirage or whatever."

In fact, on the weekend of Hu Gua's performance, billed as "Chinese Christmas," Caesars Palace and the Mirage also hosted their own Asian parties, although the Desert Inn's was one of the largest, with more than 600 people in attendance.

Malley watched the show from a box seat as Hu Gua, accompanied by singers Ma Shih-li, "the long-legged beauty," and Yang Lieh, "the song king," went through 2 1/2 hours of Taiwanese political jokes, Chinese dialect puns, Mandarin pop tunes and several animal, bird and gunfire imitations that had the crowd rolling in the aisles. "I don't know what they're saying, but it seems like we had a good act," Malley said.

As a special gesture of welcome, a representative of Nevada Gov. Bob Miller presented Hu Gua with an official proclamation, declaring him an "honorary Nevadan."

"For all of you who came from afar, we welcome you here to Nevada!" said Rozita Lee, special assistant to the governor. She added after the performance: "It's in the name of getting business."

On that account, the show was a smashing success. The Desert Inn was packed - particularly at the baccarat tables, where the maximum bet is $100,000 a hand.

Baccarat is the game of choice for the highest of the Asian high-rollers. The card game is known in Chinese as bai jia le, or "one hundred families happy," and is remarkably simple to play.

"It's so simple. Even if you don't know how to play, you can still play," said Taiwanese shipping company owner Steve Tseng as he nestled himself in a plush velvet chair with $30,000 in chips on the table.

He pushes forward a tiny stack of orange chips. It's a $6,000 bet - his usual. "Gong! Gong! Gong!" a group of gamblers chant, demanding a face card as a dozen casino employees in formal attire mill around.

Tseng loses the hand, but is nonplussed. "Everyone loses to the casino," Tseng said. "But if you lose within your capabilities, it doesn't mean much."

The increasing flow of Asian tourists has transformed not just the casinos, but Las Vegas as well.

The Asian population in town has increased with the demand for bilingual casino workers. Sightseeing companies, hotels, restaurants and even escort services regularly advertise in Asian languages now.

The renowned Chicken Ranch brothel outside of town recently had its sex menu printed in Japanese, leading to such translational challenges as "Fantasy Session" and "Y'all come back now - y'hear."

But there have been numerous missteps, as well, as businesses have leaped into the chase to tap into the Pacific Rim.

The Mirage had designed a private gambling area with shelves of books along the walls, only to discover later that the Chinese word for "library" is pronounced the same as "room of losses." The books were quickly removed.

But the cultural misunderstandings have been minor detours. Most casino executives say that the Far Eastern market will continue to build into the 21st century.

Others are more cautious, recalling the disappearance of oil tycoons from the Middle East, Latin America and the United States when crude prices plummeted.

Las Vegas remains ever sensitive to the shifting fortunes of the world.

Lanni, of Caesars Palace, believes that a significant part of the city's future may lie in Europe.