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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.

One measure of how well these marketing efforts have succeeded is the membership of the hotel's "Golden Arm Club" for elite craps players who have achieved shooting sprees of more than an hour. The hotel established the club in honor of a late Honolulu carpenter, Stanley Fujitake, who in 1989 held the dice at the California's casino for three hours and six minutes, a world record that remains unbroken. Of the club's 141 members, 108 live in Hawaii.

Fujitake's 76-year-old widow, Satsuao, says that although her husband didn't make much money during his record-setting run (he was too busy concentrating on the dice to place bets), his achievement remains a source of pride. The Honolulu newspapers and radio stations did stories about him, and he was treated like a minor celebrity in Hawaii. Strangers approached him, hoping to acquire some magic from the man with the "golden arm."

Since her husband died two years ago, Satsuao Fujitake has kept his memory alive--and her loneliness and grief at bay--by visiting the California Hotel at least once a month and for every major holiday. She typically spends 16 hours a day feeding coins into the poker machines--she allows herself about $3,000 per trip--and the staff treats her royally, comping her rooms and meals no matter how long she stays.

Being treated like a big shot is usually a new experience for the California Hotel's past-prime nurses, hotel gardeners and retired civil-service workers who make up its regulars. They may have grown up on sugar and pineapple plantations, may have heard that they didn't speak the "right" English. For them, even a calculated marketing ploy that makes them feel special exerts a powerful pull.

The Lei Day festival at the Cal wasn't the only Hawaiian event in Las Vegas last May. Across town at the Palace Station Hotel, a competing Pure Aloha festival made its debut the same weekend. The Society of Seven, a band that has been headlining in Waikiki for more than 30 years, was partway through a 13-week engagement at the Golden Nugget. The following week a Hawaiian goods trade show at the Stardust attracted the governors of both Hawaii and Nevada, while the week after that brought a cultural retreat designed to teach young Hawaiians about traditional food, crafts and music. Meanwhile, anyone longing for a taste of the Islands could choose from among three weekly Hawaiian-style buffets being offered around town.

While Joe Chan finds those touches of home comforting, he also wishes he had a dollar for every haole [white person] who's ever asked him, almost indignantly, why he left Hawaii. Then he might be able to afford to return to the island his Hong Kong-born parents adopted 20 years ago, and where he became fluent in pidgin, graduated from high school and college, and got married. Instead he owns a Hawaiian goods store in a Las Vegas strip mall, where he sells T-shirts that read: "Be a local Hawaiian and work 2 jobs in Hawaii to support your o'hana. So no ask why we moved from Paradise."

"They don't understand that you can't really enjoy paradise when you are working 80 hours a week and getting home at 10 o'clock at night, and even then you can barely make it," says the 36-year-old Chan. "I tried to stay as long as I could."

Four years ago, Chan was running his family's wholesale import business in Honolulu. He wanted the company to grow, or, better yet, he wanted to diversify so that his clan would have more than one unsteady source of income. Although he holds an electrical engineering degree from the University of Hawaii, "we aren't exactly part of the world economy," he says. And nothing in Hawaii's stagnant business climate assured him that he would be any more successful as an entrepreneur. Chan decided to go stateside. He checked out locations in California and Arizona before he settled on Las Vegas, hoping that the city's large Hawaiian tourist base and the growing community of "locals" throughout the West would fuel a demand for kona coffee, heavy gold heirloom jewelry and Island music CDs.

For all of Las Vegas' climactic differences with Hawaii, more than one transplanted Hawaiian stresses the similarities between the two locales--spectacular sunsets, a relaxed, resort-oriented culture and, to the extent that Las Vegas is surrounded by barren land, isolation. Plus, says Katherine Pohndorf, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas hotel management professor and founder of Lei Day Las Vegas: "We can walk through the casinos in our pareos, muumuus and rubber slippers, and nobody blinks an eye."

For most, moving to Vegas is a practical decision. Many already knew of the city because they had been there so many times on vacation. They were acquainted with others who had made the leap and found cheap houses and good jobs. And they knew they eventually would see friends and family from back home at the Cal.

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