Thanksgiving in Las Vegas: A holiday tradition for many Southland Asians

For years, the Chiu family tried Thanksgiving the traditional way. The Walnut family of four invited people over, cooked a turkey, bought a ham, and whipped up mashed potatoes and stuffing.

But the turkey always seemed to come out dry and eventually everyone admitted they didn't really care for the taste either. Then there was a mountain of dishes afterward that no one wanted to wash, and more often than not, Denny Chiu and his family would end up at a Chinese restaurant on Thanksgiving.

So three years ago, they piled into the family car for what has become a tradition for them and many other Asian families around the Southland: Thanksgiving in Las Vegas.

"We figured, if we're going to eat out for Thanksgiving, we might as well do it in Las Vegas," Chiu said.

Las Vegas has long been a holiday alternative for Chinese and other Asians in Southern California. For newer immigrant families who haven't formed much of a connection to the holiday, Thanksgiving is just a long weekend in which hotels happen to have cheaper rates and shorter lines at buffets, said Jonathan Ming Ren Liu, assistant president of the America Asia Travel Center, a Monterey Park tour company.

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"Thanksgiving is a big holiday for Americans, but for Chinese, it's like we already have the Moon Festival, Chinese New Year and other major holidays," Liu said. "So Thanksgiving is just a holiday to go out of town."

A typical Las Vegas Thanksgiving begins with a long drive or bus ride to a discounted room at a Vegas hotel. There's turkey, but only after waiting in the buffet lines, where you might run into a family member or friend who can hold a spot for you. After dinner, there are shows along the Las Vegas Strip, a little gambling, and in the morning, Black Friday shopping at one of the many outlet malls that dot Las Vegas' outer areas.

"The turkey was just too much trouble," Chiu said. "People just wanted to relax."

Thanksgiving is one of the busiest times of the year for Las Vegas' Chinatown, said Tina Lee, assistant property manager for Chinatown Plaza, one of the neighborhood's main strip malls. Lines start forming at the plaza's restaurants early in the morning and stretch into the evening. The 224-seat dim sum spot Harbor Palace Seafood Restaurant will open a few hours early to accommodate the Thanksgiving rush, and the chef will even roast a few turkeys for curious customers at $50 per bird, said Larry Lum, one of the partners in the restaurant.

There are no statistics showing Asian Thanksgiving trends in Las Vegas. Heidi Hayes, a spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said she was unaware of the tradition. Emily Olson, a spokeswoman for MGM Resorts, said that there were no special Thanksgiving events or promotions geared toward Asian visitors during the holiday at MGM resorts.

But Christine Leader, marketing director for Commerce-based New Sun International Travel, said the Thanksgiving in Vegas tradition has been around since she began her career in the Chinese tourism industry 30 years ago.

She thinks it began with cheap Thanksgiving deals on hotel rooms and bus tickets. The four-day weekend is one of Las Vegas' slowest weekends. The city's tourism authority expects 308,000 visitors. In 2014, it was the year's 39th-ranked weekend for tourism traffic, Hayes said.

Fewer visitors typically means cheaper room rates, and Leader says some Vegas hotels even offer free rooms. Her tour bus company, which will send six buses a day between Los Angeles and Las Vegas this Thanksgiving, also discounts fares for the long weekend.

"Thanksgiving is a very good deal for a Las Vegas vacation," Leader said.

On Wednesday morning, Grace Chang and Sherry Chen, first-year international students from USC, boarded a New Sun bus to Las Vegas to celebrate their first Thanksgiving in America. Chang said all of the Taiwanese students in her occupational therapy major are planning to stay at Treasure Island and celebrate the holiday together.

"We have never celebrated Thanksgiving before, and we just wanted to have a unique experience," Chang said.

Elenis Wong, a fourth-generation Chinese American from Monterey Park, said that Las Vegas Thanksgiving was common among her family friends growing up. Her family tried it once in 2011, and that was the last time.

She remembers waiting nearly five hours for a table at the M Resort Spa Casino's buffet. As soon they sat down the turkey ran out.

For newer immigrants, Wong said, "Thanksgiving is just a day off." But for her family Thanksgiving means cooking for your family and watching football. Over the years, they've blended the tastes of her Chinese family with American traditions, serving up sticky rice and hot pot next to turkey and stuffing.

"We grew up with all of this stuff," Wong said. "Las Vegas Thanksgiving seems so foreign to us."

This year, the Chius plan to hit the outlet malls and maybe some golf courses. Chiu's children have begun to look forward to the tradition, especially Cirque du Soleil shows after dinner. But the Chius says this might be their last year in Vegas.

Thanksgiving in Las Vegas is a little too convenient, Chiu said. Celebrating the holiday at home takes more work, but he's starting to see the benefits of it.

"The time that you spend preparing the meal together, and the bonding that happens, you don't get that in Vegas," Chiu said. "And I think that's important."

Frank.shyong@latimes.com

Twitter: @frankshyong

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A version of this article appeared in print on November 26, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Thanksgiving in Vegas a winner for many Asians - Newer immigrant families enjoy lower hotel rates and dining out" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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