LAS VEGAS — 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 emcee 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 \o7 cucumber \f7 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 that where Liberace, Wayne Newton and Sammy Davis Jr. once ruled, the marquees now blaze with names like Hu Gua, Ma Shih-li and Yang Lieh.
Las Vegas--that paradigm of American excess and decadence--has embraced 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, the Asian gambler has become the most sought after high roller of the '90s. The growing Asian community on the West Coast has been a source of valued "low rollers" as well.
"They gamble every day, they wager against each other, they play hard," said Terry Lanni, president of Caesars World Inc., which owns Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
Asian gamblers are being courted with everything from $6 overnight bus tours from Los Angeles' Chinatown to all-expense-paid junkets out of Jakarta, Taipei and Seoul.
The largest casinos, such as Caesars Palace and the Mirage, have opened year-round marketing offices in the Far East and most have added Asian games such as \o7 pai gow\f7 and \o7 sic bo \f7 to their repertoire.
"The business from Asia has just exploded incredibly," said Desert Inn President Kevin J. Malley.
The U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration reported that the annual number of visitors from Asia to Las Vegas increased from 121,000 in 1985 to 286,000 in 1989. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is reaching out for more with branch offices in Japan and Taiwan.
The increasing flow of Asian visitors has not only had an effect on casinos, but on the city of Las Vegas as well.
The population of Japanese, Chinese and Koreans in town has increased with the demand for bilingual casino workers. Tour companies, hotels, restaurants and even escort services regularly advertise in Asian languages.
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--ya'hear."
Old-timers around Glitter Gulch say that the importance of the Asian gambler to Las Vegas has been mounting for the last two decades.
They have enjoyed a longstanding reputation as enthusiastic players, which Far Eastern businessmen say is an outgrowth of the risk-taking entrepreneurship that created the Asian economic boom, but others say is simply cultural.
"Gambling is a tradition. Just look, every child knows how to play \o7 ma jiang \f7 (commonly spelled mah-jongg)," said tour guide Alex Liu.
But it was only in the 1980s, as the Japanese gross national product grew by 78% to nearly $3 trillion and the Taiwan stock market index grew eight-fold in four years, that the pursuit of the Far Eastern gambler reached fever pitch.
The last five years have seen casinos scurrying to outdo one another with ever more opulent Asian parties, Asian gaming areas and Asian restaurants. Next to its Roman temple, Caesars Palace even installed a Buddhist shrine for convenient prayer. The shrine was donated by Thai newspaper tycoon Kamphol Vacharaphol and Hong Kong shipping magnate Yip Hon.
Las Vegas also exerts a powerful allure for Asian visitors, fascinated by not only the city's casino gambling (illegal in much of Asia), but also its glamour, which some visitors say is missing from Far Eastern gambling resorts, such as those in Macao and Korea.
"Everyone wants to come to America to become wealthy," said Ling Chuang, a 24-year-old Alhambra student from Taiwan who was on her first visit to Las Vegas. "This is America. It is so prosperous, like an illusion."
Although the number of Asian gamblers is only a fraction of the 20 million tourists who visit Las Vegas each year, they exert economic power that far exceeds their numbers.
Malley estimated that 90 of the Desert Inn's top 100 gamblers are Asian and about 45% of the casino's revenue comes from gamblers from the Far East or such West Coast cities as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver.
"It's not just limited to the Desert Inn," Malley said. "The same is true of Caesars, the Mirage or whatever."