For Many Asians, an Atlantic City Pilgrimage

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 24, 2006

ATLANTIC CITY, Nov. 23 -- There was much to be grateful for, Thanh Huynh noted Thursday: a rare day free from serving pho at the Vietnamese restaurant where he works, a new wife beside him, a seat on a warm bus that rumbled north toward a glitzy palace where he would sit at a green velvet baccarat table and see what his $200 might become.

About noon, the Dream Tours bus that Huynh, 49, had boarded that morning in Springfield cruised into Atlantic City and pulled up to the Trump Taj Mahal, where he and thousands of other Asian immigrants prepared to give thanks, in their own way.

"I'm thankful for Thanksgiving," said the Falls Church resident. He knew that the holiday falls on a Thursday and involves a special dinner, but for him it means something better: "I get off work."

With its pilgrim-and-Indian narrative and turkey dinner ritual, Thanksgiving is perhaps the most tradition-bound of major American holidays, making it among those that resonate least with immigrants. But in the land of the free, customs are malleable -- and for many Asian immigrants along the Eastern Seaboard, Thanksgiving has become a day to hit one small land of opportunity: Atlantic City.

Officials at the Taj expected as much as 70 percent of Thursday's revenue to come from Asian clients. One of Hong Kong's biggest "Cantopop" singers was on deck to give two shows in a 5,000-seat arena, and an ensemble of more than 20 Vietnamese crooners was to give two more.

The Taj's embrace of its Asian clients, and their embrace back, isn't novel; Atlantic City casinos have been wooing Asians for decades. Most casinos have Asian marketing departments that sign up Asia's hottest pop stars, lure clients with bus routes from Chinatowns and hire bilingual dealers and hosts to work the casino floors. They also pay attention to details: The Taj has no 14th floor, because the Chinese associate that number with death, said Gary Ng, senior vice president for Asian marketing at the Trump company's three Atlantic City casinos.

The Taj makes about 25 percent of its average monthly revenue from Asian patrons, Ng said. On holidays such as Thanksgiving, the one day that many Asian restaurants and shops are closed, that figure can nearly triple.

Inside the purple-and-pink carpeted casino Thursday, women with blond bouffants and men in cowboy hats hit slot-machine buttons under tiered chandeliers that cascaded from the mirrored ceiling. But players at the table games -- baccarat, poker, blackjack -- were nearly all Asian. Upstairs near store windows displaying fur-collared sweaters, hundreds of people lined up to buy tickets for the 2 p.m. show of Hong Kong singer Joey Yung, whom Ng described as "the Christina Aguilera of Asia."

Hoa Lieu of Falls Church planned to try to win at the blackjack tables for approximately the 28th time. He has gone every Thanksgiving for nearly three decades and has never won, he said as the bus cruised through Delaware before arriving. Lieu, 55, had set aside $500 to wager and was feeling lucky.

His Thanksgiving ritual was cemented soon after he arrived in the Washington area from Saigon by way of refugee camps in Malaysia and the Philippines. He was working 10-hour days, six days a week, in Chinese restaurants. It left little time to rest, learn English or relax. And so on that blessed 365th day, Lieu would escape to Atlantic City.

Now he has an "American job" -- with "vacation, benefits," he said -- packing coffee tables and TV stands at a Chantilly furniture store. Yet the Thanksgiving journey has stuck.

"To make fun, you know," said Lieu, Huynh's brother-in-law, sinking into his puffy black jacket. A few seats away, one gray-haired man read a Chinese-language newspaper; another clutched a laminated drawing of Buddha. "It's still too fun."

Ng said that Asian immigrants flock to casinos largely because it requires little English. Scholars have penned theses on Asians' affinity for gambling, describing how Asian culture is steeped in themes of luck and chance. Peter Yi, owner of Dream Tours, puts it more simply.

"The gambling is in the Asian blood," said Yi, who is Korean American. Whatever the case, it has been good for Yi's Vienna bus company, which runs $45 weekend and holiday round trips to Atlantic City, with pickups in two Northern Virginia spots, the District's Chinatown and Wheaton. Most riders are Chinese or Vietnamese, he said. Upon arrival, the casino gives them $25, the better to gamble with, and a $5 meal voucher.

Shirley Chen, 26, of Temple Hills, waited for the bus in Chinatown on Thursday morning. It was the first trip for her and her brother, who work in Chinese restaurants, where they had gleaned from customers that Thanksgiving involves a large meal. Atlantic City, they had heard, was pretty, with places to swim. And the games sounded fun.

"Everybody is so happy today because no work," said Chen, who said she spends most of her free time studying English.

As the bus drove behind the Taj, Huynh stepped out into the cool air, holding the hand of his bride of one year, Huynh Tran, 30. He had been dreaming of hitting the jackpot, he said with a laugh, which he might use to buy a plane ticket to Vietnam or donate to an orphanage. With them was Lieu, who also had hopes.

But as they slipped into the 24-hour lights of the casino, they said that at the heart of their Thanksgiving agenda lay a plan that everyone, even those gathered around a turkey, could relate to.

"Eat some good food," Huynh said. "Relax."

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