ATLANTIC CITY — Golden dragons extend greetings in English, Chinese and Vietnamese from roadside billboards along the Atlantic City Expressway.
The most powerful of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac, the dragon is brash, generous and optimistic. Atlantic City casinos, like their counterparts in Las Vegas and Macau, are hoping to capitalize on that festive spirit as they prepare for the start of the Lunar New Year today.
“There’ve always been some smaller scale efforts in place, but we really started with the ballroom functions, the merchandise and the foods five years ago,” said Steve Hann, vice president of casino marketing at Caesars Atlantic City.
Lunar New Year, which typically occurs in late January or early February, has historically been one of Las Vegas’ most successful holidays.
In February 2010, when the holiday coincided with the Super Bowl, casino revenue spiked 13.9 percent, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board. Last year, casinos in the Chinese gambling mecca of Macau broke a world record with a single-day gaming revenue of $185 million.
Hann, who oversees Asian marketing for all Caesars casinos in the Atlantic region, said the holiday hasn’t yet reached those heights locally. But it does draw many tourists, Asian and non-Asian alike, during a slow time of year.
“We really enjoy doing this and the whole company gets behind it,” he said. “We’re constantly looking for ways to build upon it, to make it more diverse and larger as we go forward.”
With a growing Asian-American population — in Atlantic County, it grew by 63 percent between 2000 and 2010 — Hann said casinos have begun marketing directly to the community.
Borgata and Tropicana both joined Caesars’ holdings in erecting billboards along the Atlantic City Expressway this year.
Hann said his company advertises in Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese publications throughout the region. It also erected a similar billboard in the heart of New York City’s Chinatown.
But catering to these distinct communities also means being sensitive to their respective cultures.
“As is the case with the Chinese, the color white signifies death,” Hann said. “As a visual example, we’d be very concerned not to put decor up that’s all white.
“We try to stick as close to what the traditional culture calls for,” he continued. “So, for Lunar New Year, it’s mostly reds and golds, very happy, warm, good-feeling colors.”
Myron Quon, executive director of the Los Angeles-based National Asian Pacific American Families Against Substance Abuse, said casinos have become particularly savvy with their marketing around Lunar New Year, which is celebrated in a number of Asian cultures.
“Twenty years ago, the casinos were not well aware of it,” he said. “The first industry leaders were in Vegas because of the large number of Asians living in California — they were trying to find ways to draw them in.”
Casinos have become well-versed in the hallmarks of Asian culture, Quon said, down to the envelopes some casinos put their free food or slot-dollars in.
“Often times on these tour buses, they’ll give people a voucher in a little red or plastic envelope with a Chinese character in gold,” he said.
They are similar to “hongbao,” literally “red envelopes” containing money that relatives give each other during the holiday, Quon said.
Even the more mundane elements of the celebration have their roots in strong concepts of good and bad luck.
“The firecrackers that you see around the New Year — and that you see in a lot of casinos — are supposed to drive off bad spirits so good luck can come in,” he said.
C.N. Le, director of the Asian and Asian American Studies program at the University of Massachusetts, said the Lunar New Year is a time for people start anew. Often that means testing one’s luck to see what auspices the new year will bring.
“If they can get lucky in terms of winning some money, that translates into a better outlook for them in the coming year,” he said. “It sets the tone for the rest of the year.”
The casinos have been very effective at creating a welcoming environment for Asian immigrants who may not feel comfortable anywhere else outside their traditional communities, said Le, who left Vietnam with his parents at age 5.
“In part, (the casinos) are appealing to their sense of superstition, getting them to tap into their old traditions,” he said.
But the casino industry’s embrace of Asian culture also has an underside.
Unfortunately, Le said, Asian gambling addicts are very much like any other gambling addict.
“They’re like anybody else,” he said. “They push their luck to reverse their luck the next time. When you get into that pattern, it can escalate into a pretty serious problem.”
Quon said the image of the Asian gambling addict has become a hurtful stereotype, but it’s not far off base. Quon, whose organization oversees an extensive gambling addiction program, said Asians are particularly susceptible due to cultural factors.
“I have relatives and friends who have experienced it,” he said. “I see it everywhere.”
Gambling is ingrained in some cultures, said Quon, a second-generation Chinese-American.
“As Chinese kids, we’ve grown up with the nightly or weekly social function of parents and grandparents playing mahjong,” he said, “which is similar enough to poker.”
“The only difference is that the back-and-forth in a family or a village is not the same thing as going to a casino, where the odds are stacked against you,” he added.
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