Any given Saturday night, you can shuffle onto a comfortable, heated bus with a dozen or so others—mostof them traveling solo, a few in pairs talking low about the night’s goals—and your driver will joke, “Anything you make tonight, I get half,” and smile as he pulls awayfrom the mud-streaked snowbanks of Archer and Wentworth Avenues.
The shuttles whisk away Chinese-Chicagoans (and anyone else who boards) to a half-dozen massive casinos on the hour every hour, through the night every night. Translation services, noodle shops, high-end restaurants with top Asian chefs, even special gaming rooms are features of local casinos such as Hammond’s Horseshoe, whose luxurious Le Cheng gaming room featuring multiple baccarat tables and pai gow tiles was installed as a part of the casino’s $500 million expansion in 2008.
Last month, Horseshoe celebrated the year of the dragon, which is believed to be the best year for everything: weddings, births—and making money. Horseshoe hosted a special New Year’s concert featuring a half-dozen pop stars from Vietnam’s popular Paris by Night musical variety show—that culture’s answer to America’s Got Talent—which drew a crowd of 2,000. “Lunar New Year is a time for rebirth and considered a lucky time for Asian gamblers,” says Rhiannon Bach, director of casino marketing at Horseshoe Hammond Casino within the Caesars Entertainment Corporation. “Certainly around Lunar New Year we have a surge in business.”
Chicago resident John Michael Yee, a baccarat and blackjack player who, during the Lunar New Year, was offered $100 by a local casino marketer, explains the holiday upswing another way: “It’s kind of like a holiday for Asian people to do what they want to do—and a lot of Asians like to gamble.” Yee, who’s of Chinese-Filipino descent, grew up playing card games, wagering nickels and dimes at age nine. “Asian families always do some sort of card game during holidays.”
Luck, fate and tradition are paramount within East Asian culture, and some modern casinos cater accordingly, says Bach. “Little things can make a room unlucky that you wouldn’t even think about,” Bach says, citing the original MGM Grand in Las Vegas as making one of the worst design mistakes in casino history: Originally, patrons had to walk through a giant lion’s head to enter the casino—a major no-no.
Des Plaines’s Rivers Casino recently hosted a customer-appreciation event in Chinatown, which treated 50 guests to a VIP meal at that neighborhood’s Evergreen restaurant—“the first of many events to be held in Chinatown,” according to a spokesperson.
“Some casinos see this as a marketing opportunity and provide buses directly to the casino,” says Grace Chan, director of administration at Chinatown’s Chinese American Service League. She adds that when the local Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community was founded in 2000, one of its first initiatives was to work with local casinos to diminish marketing tactics—in particular, sending buses to Chinatown to cart in casinogoers. “It used to be even worse,” Chan says of the number of shuttles. “Now they are more discreet about it, and more respectful of the community’s desire to keep this under control.”
Decked out with faux Chinese lanterns, wood-carved detail and silken gaming chairs, Le Cheng is arguably the most beautiful room in Horseshoe’s vast property. But its patrons, regardless of their race, seemed blasé, focused on their bets. When asked whether he was gambling in the Le Cheng room because of its obvious cultural allure, one Asian gambler furrowed his brow in confusion. “What? No,” he replied. “I stay in this room because of the tables: The stakes are higher.”