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The great mall of China

The Strip goes red and gold for the Year of the Tiger

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Lucky charm: A Chinese god of prosperity presides over the Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Gardens.
Photo: Steve Marcus

There’s an international pop superstar in Las Vegas this weekend. An ultramegastar, in fact. But if you don’t speak or read Chinese, you may not have gotten the memo. When I recently told a music-literate friend that Sam Hui will play the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday—where he’s expected to draw up to 12,000—she said, “who?”

This Vegas appearance of Cantonese pop star Hui is a big deal, as the 61-year-old Hong Kong entertainer has gone in and out of retirement in recent years and performances are rare. And if you look around the Strip this weekend, you’ll notice most of the big rooms have been taken over by Asian artists: A Cantonese boy band called Grasshopper is filling Cher’s shoes at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace. Hollywood-based pop-rock band Nylon Pink, which includes several Chinese-American members, performs at the Mirage’s Revolution Lounge on the 13th, along with DJ duo BFTF (Back From the Future, half of which also happens to be Chinese-American.)

Over the years, the two-week celebration of Chinese New Year has grown into an annual Vegas phenomenon. Casino resorts have come to depend on this annual influx of big-spending Asian visitors, and mobilize accordingly, wining, dining, decorating and just generally rolling out the red-and-gold carpet for them.

The festival is traditionally ushered in with lion dances and lavish feasts of symbolic foods, at which celebrants are reminded to honor the important things in life: ancestors and children, health and longevity. (And renewed Las Vegas prosperity!)

Chinese New Year

Related Story
A Chinese New Year primer (2/8/10)
Photo Exhibit
Looking Back after 30 Years
at Crystals at CityCenter, 10 a.m.-midnight daily through February 22.
Elementary school parade
Through the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, 10:30 a.m. February 11
Dragon and lion dances
Venetian-to-Palazzo porte cocheres (3 p.m. February 13, 1 p.m. February 14)
Harrah’s hotel lobby (7 p.m. February 13)
Imperial Palace hotel lobby (8:15 p.m. February 13)
Flamingo southwest entrance (9:15 p.m. February 13)
Rio hotel lobby (1 p.m. February 14)
Bally’s north entrance (2:30 p.m. February 14)
Paris hotel lobby (3 p.m. February 14)
Caesars Palace main entrance (5 p.m. February 14)
Mandalay Bay (10 p.m. February 14)
Aria (6:30 p.m. February 16)
Concerts
Sam Hui, 8 p.m. February 13 at MGM Grand Garden Arena; $50.40-$176.40, $134.40, $92.40 and $50.40 mgmgrand.com
Grasshopper, 8 p.m. February 14 at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace; $48-$168, caesarspalace.com

This, of course, is the year of the Tiger, which could be good news for a certain golfer. You’re a Tiger, too, if you were born in 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998 or 2010. Hence, at the Bellagio Conservatory, the animated tiger nodding and staring at camera-wielding tourists in an incense-fragranced garden, strewn with overscale gold I-Ching coins amid the scarlet and yellow chrysanthemums.

And the similarly supersized tiger benignly presiding over the waterfall atrium at Palazzo.

MGM Mirage, in particular, goes all out for the holiday. This will be Aria’s first Chinese New Year gala, and the company has invited 3,000 of MGM Mirage’s best customers for a traditional Chinese eight-course meal and entertainment. That event is invite-only, but at Crystals at CityCenter, you can take in a touring bi-level exhibit called Looking Back After 30 Years, a retrospective of China-United States diplomatic relations. BYOB, by the way.

In addition to their gold-and-scarlet makeovers, many properties host a traditional Chinese lion dance—an elaborate and explosive chain of dancers and acrobats. (See sidebar.)

Greg Shulman, vice president for international marketing at Bellagio, points out some subtle things that the general public might not notice. At Bellagio, for instance, Jasmin restaurant offers a traditional dim sum buffet during the 10-day holiday period. The chefs in all of MGM Mirage’s gourmet Asian restaurants prepare Chinese menu items that will appeal to way-out-of-town guests during this time of year, emphasizing certain foods that are considered lucky—tangerines, for instance.

According to a recent Las Vegas Sun report, Chinese visitors probably make up fewer than 300,000 of Las Vegas’ annual visitor traffic of more than 30 million people. But most of these are members of China’s wealthy elite, and the casinos are eager to court and accommodate them.

One reason for this particularly preferential treatment is that Chinese gamblers favor baccarat, and baccarat has been very good to Las Vegas. In November, reports the Sun, baccarat players wagered $690.8 million at Strip resorts—about 14 percent of all the money bet in those casinos, and the Strip’s first increase in reported gambling revenue since 2007.

The February holiday is only part of the Strip’s year-round marketing efforts toward Asian customers, says Bellagio’s Shulman. “American-born Chinese are a very substantial core group of customers. So we take it up a notch for them.”

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