Monday, May 24, 2010

It Begins with C, Which Rhymes With T, Which Stands for TROUBLE!

Right here in River City Bethlehem!

Or not really. While I was away in Korea, the iconic Bethlehem Steel mill was converted to a casino.



No greater indignity has ever been done to a building or a piece of machinery than that poor steel ore crane. I salute you, relic of an America gone by; reminder of what we used to be.

Anyway, there's been a whole lot of fussing with this project, including hiring feng shui experts to make casinos (like the Sands and others in Pennsylvania, such as Mount Airy Lodge) more attractive to Asians.

I'll reproduce the story here, in case the link ever expires.

Countdown to Table Games
Pennsylvania's cash-hungry casinos are redesigning their floors to encourage an Asian invasion

Matthew Assad

If you visit one of Pennsylvania's new casino table games this summer, you're likely to see a lot of eights, the tables won't be close to the door, and it may appear that whoever designed the poker room has an odd fascination with dragons.

That's because casinos are preparing for what they hope will be an Asian invasion.

"Asians like table games," said George Toth, president of Mount Airy Casino Resort, one of several adding tables with Asian players in mind. "They are good clients, and we want them to feel comfortable here."

More importantly, they want them to feel comfortable betting thousands of dollars—sometimes in a single hand—at Pennsylvania's soon-to-open table games, such as blackjack, baccarat and craps.

Some experts estimate that 25 percent to 30 percent of new table game players in state casinos will be of Asian descent, particularly at easternmost casinos with close access to New York City, where more than 800,000 Asians live, and New Jersey, which has an Asian population of nearly 700,000, according to the most recent U.S. Census figures.

Consider that Macau, China—not Las Vegas—is now the gambling capital of the world. Unlike Pennsylvania, Macau casinos are dominated by tables, not slot machines, because that is what Asian players prefer.

And no casino operator wants the wrong gaming floor design to give cash-carrying players the impression there is no luck to be had there.

No one has more riding on attracting Asian gamblers than Toth and Mount Airy. The casino has been among the state's worst performers almost since it opened in 2007, but Toth believes tables give him an opportunity to turn things around.

Mount Airy has brought in two designers whose sole job is to make sure the tables floor conforms to the theories of feng shui, the ancient Chinese belief that the proper design and placement of objects keeps the living and working environment in harmony with nature and the flow of energy.

When table games open in Pennsylvania this July or August, Mount Airy will have a special Asian room with 17 table games that include mini-baccarat, pai gow poker and pai gow tiles.

When players arrive they'll see a lot of 8s—a number feng shui followers believe portrays good fortune—and probably not many 4s, a number associated with death.

They'll see wall hangings and tapestries emblazoned with dragons and koi, and the decor will be draped in colors like red and gold, all emitters of good fortune.

The chandeliers will, of course, have eight hanging fringes, not four, and while the entrance to the room will be wide open, that opening will not continue unimpeded through the room. Screens or dividing walls will prevent the good energy entering the room from leaving too quickly.

"Feng shui followers truly believe in signs that represent good fortune and good luck," said Mount Airy interior designer Marcella Ravell, who has visited China and made two trips to Chinatown in New York to educate herself. "We intend to present a very lucky atmosphere."

But the effort doesn't stop with presenting an appearance of good fortune. Mount Airy will have eight daily buses into Chinatown, and its Asian room dealers will be fluent in Mandarin or Cantonese, said Edwin Chou, Mount Airy's director of Asian marketing.

That's right, Mount Airy has a special Asian marketing staff of people lured away from Atlantic City casinos.

And just as will be the case at Harrah's Chester Casino in Delaware County, Mount Airy will have a noodle bar buffet outside the Asian poker room. Willie Wong, Mount Airy's Asian player development director, noted the noodle bar has advantages well beyond the cultural benefits.

"It's a light meal, so they can eat in 20 minutes and get right back to the tables," Wong said, jokingly mimicking a motion of shoveling noodles into his mouth. "We want players at the tables having a good time."

Anyone who thinks casino operators like Toth are over-estimating what's at stake need only look back to the opening of the MGM Grand Hotel-Casino in 1993.

At the casino entrance, people walked into the mouth of a mammoth lion built to resemble MGM's corporate symbol.

But soon, casino operators realized Asian gamblers were avoiding their casinos for others on the Las Vegas strip.

It turned out that some who held Asian beliefs considered walking into the mouth of the lion unlucky. MGM quickly spent millions to reconfigure the entrance.

Toth may be taking the most extreme measures to attract table games players, but he's certainly not alone. When Las Vegas Sands opened its Marina Bay Sands in Singapore last month, it proudly proclaimed the $5.5 billion casino project "feng shui-approved."

Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, Mount Airy's primary competition for the New York and New Jersey markets, also will have a feng shui-inspired Asian tables section and dealers who speak various dialects of Chinese. Officials there say they're upping the ethnic sensitivity ante.

"In addition to having no 13th floor in our hotel, there will also be no fourth floor," said Sands Bethlehem President Robert DeSalvio. "Four is not a good number in Asian culture."

It all may sound like a focus on culture and the mystique of feng shui, but at its heart, it's really all about dollars, millions of them.

Consider that Pennsylvania casino operators project tables games to boost casino revenues roughly 25 percent, and those in the eastern part of the state expect roughly 25 percent of their table players to be of Asian descent. For a casino such as Sands, that's an expected revenue boost from table games of more than $50 million year.

Carrying the formula through, that means Asian players alone could be responsible for leaving $12 million to $15 million a year on Sands' tables. And on top of that, Pennsylvania's table games tax, at 16 percent, is far less than the 55 percent tax on slot machine revenues, allowing the casino to keep a much bigger piece of the profits.

No casino wants to turn that money away because of a misplaced wall or the wrong color scheme.

"It's important that we show our friends in the Asian community the respect they deserve," DeSalvio said. "We want them to feel welcome."

Doing anything else would risk bringing bad luck to the bottom line.

I don't really know what to make of this article. Even if it is for cash, it's nice to businesses consider things outside the broader scope of their culture.

But it also does the "Asian just means 'Chinese'" thing you see all the time. (To be fair, sometimes it's "Asian just means 'Japanese,'" as well.) Most of the superstitions carry over from China to Korea and Japan as well, it's the part where the supposedly Asian room will have Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking staff. No Japanese, no Korean. The clientèle they're hoping to attract is mostly Chinese (they run buses to and from Chinatown to the various casinos around here), so that makes sense. But then why call it Asian? Yeah, it's nitpickery, but Asia is really really big! Look at your RISK board, see why it's worth seven armies every turn? There's plenty of countries that aren't China. Aren't even close. If they're serving Chinese noodles and hiring Chinese-speaking staff to cater to a Chinese crowd, why not just call it the Chinese room? I'm reminded of back in the day when you used to be able major in "Oriental Studies." What? ("Asian Studies" isn't really any better, but at least in a lot of places now it's qualified as "East Asian Studies.")

I'm also not entirely sure that the article gives the right impression about East Asians and superstitions. ("Better watch out and make sure your casino's feng shui is right, or you'll scare away the ignorant Asians!") I mean yes, obviously it's a big enough concern that they're addressing it, but I think Koreans, at least, are in general about as superstitious as Americans are. Mina wouldn't write student names in red ink, but Kate would; I don't have a thing about the number 13 but I say "rabbit rabbit" at the beginning of every month for good luck. It's not like a compulsive "it makes or breaks my day" thing. It's a small, inconsequential decision I make. The same with an old Chinese guy spending his pension gambling: choosing one casino over another is a really small, inconsequential decision, and if you use non-rational means of making that decision, what does it matter? Of course, thousands of people making the same decision based on those same non-rational means will mean something for the bottom line of a casino. But it's not like all those old Chinese guys gambling away their pension are walking around with a ba gua, scoping out the best place to set up their new business or plant their vegetable garden, which is what the article seems to imply. But again: China and Korea are two different countries, so who knows!

The point that also bugs me is this statistic: "Some experts estimate that 25 percent to 30 percent of new table game players in state casinos will be of Asian descent..."

Yes, there's lots of Asians here on the East Coast, mostly clustered around New York City. But, and here's the big but, of Asian descent does not equal Asian. There's no shortage of second, third, etc generation Asian-Americans, not to mention the half- or quarter-Asians they may or may not be counting in this statistic. No mention, either, whether those numbers include East Asians who were adopted and raised by American families. The implication seems to be that the 800,000 "Asians" (whatever that really means to the people conducting these surveys) in New York City are all superstitious old fresh-off-the-boat ajossis and ajummas, and that being of Asian descent is equivalent to being terrified of the number 4 or playing blackjack in room with blue walls.

In any case, Asia-ing it up won't bring me to your casino, Sands. That's not a casino, that's a tasteless monstrosity.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Oh hi, Denny!

(A reference to the "Citizen Kane of bad movies," The Room)

Despite no longer being in Korea, I'm still here and updating. For one, since I'm considering coming back, I don't want to retired it quite yet. Also, I figure my teacher-buddies are SO TOTALLY INTERESTED IN MY POST-KOREA LIFE AND TIMES.

I hung out at home for a few weeks, then I hopped a plane to Stockholm to see my boyfriend:

Most of the time we spent bumming about Stockholm, which is one of my favorite cities in the world. I think it's absolutely gorgeous. One weekend we went out to Uppsala to visit his parents at their farm, along with his niece and nephew. And SHEEP! Very pregnant, fluffy sheep:

We also spent a few days in Finland, since it's so easy to get to from Stockholm.

Yes, we were ON A BOAT.

A fancy boat.

It was an overnight boat trip to get to Helsinki, a town small enough that you can walk the whole thing without much problem. We got off the boat at about 10 in the morning and made a beeline for our hotel on foot, taking in some of the city sights on the way.

We dropped off our bags and ventured out again, checklist in hand.

#1: The Finnish National Museum

#2: Tempelplatsens Kyrka

#3 Senate Square/Helsinki Cathedral

By the time we finished walking everywhere and seeing all we wanted to see, it was bedtime. The next day started with free breakfast at the hotel, and then the last item on our checklist, the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress. We checked out, grabbed our bags, and wandered down to the dock where we could catch the ferry to Suomenlinna.

Then some shopping in the market, and we were ready to go back to Stockholm.

In short: A+ would do again.