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Cover Story

The Ninth Hawaiian Island

What Could Possibly Lure So Many People From a Real Tropical Paradise to the Conjured Mirage of Las Vegas?

October 27, 2002|LISA LEFF | Lisa Leff is a freelance writer living in Ventura. Her last article for the magazine was about the fate of Los Angeles County's unidentified dead.

The California Hotel & Casino isn't what people imagine when they think of the "new" Las Vegas. It wasn't built to resemble a pyramid, a medieval castle or anything more architecturally ambitious than a pair of towers that would be at home near any major airport.

Situated on the edge of downtown, three miles northeast of the glitzy Strip and three blocks from the city's secondary gambling district, Glitter Gulch, the California offers little in the way of location. It doesn't have a health spa, a Starbucks or a single man-made water feature, not even a swimming pool. There is no lounge--hence, no lounge acts--on the premises either, nary a magician, showgirl or faded crooner to distract visitors from the business of betting. If contemporary Las Vegas is a smorgasbord for the senses, the "Cal" is strictly meat-and-potatoes, a Holiday Inn with slot machines.

What the California Hotel does have is a customer base of unparalleled loyalty. Its 781 rooms are almost always occupied. The typical guests, men and women in their late 60s, check in once every other month and stay at least four days. Ignoring the novelty of other venues, they eat, sleep and bet a tidy bankroll of several hundred dollars (more than typical Vegas visitors) almost exclusively at the Cal, where the food, casual dress code and laid-back dealers remind them of home. These devoted patrons hail not from the Golden State, as the hotel's name might suggest, but from Hawaii, a spot that seems far removed from Vegas, both aesthetically and experientially.

But for reasons both cultural and economic, Las Vegas is the top travel destination for Hawaiian tourists, a preference the California Hotel's management has carefully cultivated for almost three decades. Each year, nearly a quarter-million passengers make the five-hour trans-Pacific flight from Honolulu to McCarran International Airport--a number equal to one-fifth of the Aloha State's population. More than half of them stay at the Cal or one of its two sister hotel-casinos, the Fremont and Main Street Station, turning downtown Las Vegas into a provisional Polynesian colony.

Along with the surfeit of Hawaiians on holiday in this desert oasis, thousands of Islanders have made Sin City their home during the last decade, a period in which Hawaii's economy flagged and Vegas' flourished. Some estimate that the Pacific Islander population in metropolitan Las Vegas is as high as 80,000 (out of the approximately 1.4 million residents counted during the 2000 census). The migration has been both steady and visible enough that many Hawaiians refer to Las Vegas as "The Ninth Island," a catchy appellation coined by a Hawaii-born Army officer who started a magazine for expatriate Islanders after he retired there in 1996. It also has spawned a boom in southern Nevada hula schools, lei-making contests and a seemingly endless array of Hawaiian food and music.

Most of these emigres are no different from the Central Americans who come to the United States to make better lives for their families, or even the Okies who abandoned the Dust Bowl for uncertain futures as farm hands in California. Yet in many ways they are even bigger gamblers than their fellow Hawaiians who flock to Vegas as a temporary antidote for island fever. For these children and grandchildren of the Pearl Harbor generation, leaving home means fleeing not some brutal war or oppressive dictatorship, but a U.S. state that most people consider paradise.

The irony is hard to escape, and woven among the curious cross-cultural images is a familiar story as old as America itself--of corporate manipulation and economic survival, of a proud culture's desire to hold on to its heritage and its inevitable assimilation, of tempting fantasies and cruel illusions. It's a tale that's been told so often that it has become archetypal. Only here, the huddled masses are wearing flip-flops.

Mainlanders have always been fascinated with Hawaii. About once every 20 years, a collective enthrallment with island culture announces itself in a commercial eruption of tiki torches, ukuleles and grass-skirted hula girls. America is, in fact, at the apex of such a phase now, a trend evidenced by the palm tree shower curtains and hibiscus-print bath towels Pottery Barn featured in its summer catalog, the resurgence of backyard luaus, and the release in late June of "Lilo & Stitch," the Disney film about a Hawaiian girl who attempts to teach an unruly alien about the meaning of o'hana, or family.

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