The Ninth Hawaiian Island

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.

But in Hawaiians’ love affair with Las Vegas, it’s possible to see beyond our animated images of the islands. Like the first star in the night sky or the single dab of red paint that leaps out from a dull landscape in a Corot painting, the contrast between lush rain forest and harsh desert, between the innocent pleasures of paradise and the dream of instant riches, is impossible to ignore. And, like the tourist who dares to venture off the main drag, you can’t help but be discomfited by what you find there.

Inside the California’s casino, Islanders who have never been anywhere on the mainland besides Las Vegas sit raptly before banks of video poker machines with Hawaiian-themed names such as Shaka Five Way, Diamond Head and No ka ‘oi (The Very Best). Year after year, Asian Pacific alumni of high schools on Maui and the Big Island attend their class reunions in the hotel’s O’hana and Maile banquet rooms, their organizers having assumed that they’ll get a better turnout there than in Hawaii. Indeed, Las Vegas is such a draw for Hawaiian tourists that one of Honolulu’s oldest travel agencies often tacks side trips to Vegas onto its escorted tours of other popular mainland destinations. The practice results in such quirkily packaged junkets as the “California Coast and Catalina Island Including Las Vegas” and “Autumn New England and Las Vegas” tours.

In return for its Hawaiian visitors’ fidelity, the California Hotel’s parent company, Boyd Gaming Corp., co-sponsors a two-day Lei Day festival on an asphalt parking lot adjacent to the hotel every May. Lei Day, the Polynesian equivalent of May Day, is a big deal in Hawaii. Children celebrate the occasion with elaborate school pageants where they crown a Lei Day queen and her court, while adults compete in lei-making contests and distribute garlands of jasmine, ginger and orchids like valentines. Relocated to a desert climate, however, the holiday loses something in the translation.

This year’s Lei Day Las Vegas was a fund-raiser for one of the six hula schools that have cropped up in southern Nevada, and it took place during one of the spring’s first hot weekends. Although 59 vendors were selling everything from Aloha-print checkbook covers to puka shell necklaces, fresh flowers were in short supply. One of the two flower dealers on hand had flown from Oahu toting 3,000 plumeria blossoms the night before. She spent the first day of the festival bathing her sweetly scented wares in ice water and watching helplessly as they turned brown anyway. The kukui nut leis that other vendors had fashioned as a hardier alternative didn’t fare much better. By late afternoon, the nuts were cracking and popping off their strings in the parched air, leaving the blacktop littered with shells.

Still, hundreds turned out for the event. Most of them weren’t California Hotel guests at all (they were in the casino, still gambling), but transplanted Islanders who, after getting to know Las Vegas through frequent visits, moved to the city seeking employment, education for their children and access to a way of life they couldn’t afford back home--in short, for the same reasons that lure immigrants from outside the United States.

Carrying plates of kalua pig, malasada doughnuts and chili and rice, Lei Day revelers huddled in the shade of a billboard advertising the Main Street Station Hotel’s “$11.99 T-bone Tuesdays.” After dark, Polynesian dance troupes took turns performing with bands playing both vintage Hawaiian music and the Hawaiian-infused reggae known as “Jawaiian” in the glow of a neon sign for Binion’s Horseshoe Hotel and Casino. The overall effect was one of extreme cognitive dissonance.

In both Las Vegas and Hawaii, the California Hotel is recognized as the place “where people from paradise play ... and stay,” in the words of Boyd Gaming’s advertising staff. But it’s hard to say which came first, the hotel or the tendency of Islanders to vacation in Las Vegas. Either way, it’s fair to say that the level of tourist traffic from Hawaii to Vegas would not be nearly what it is today if the hotel’s founder, a veteran gaming operator named Sam Boyd, had been more successful with his original plans for the property.

When Boyd purchased the land for his first Las Vegas hotel-casino in the early 1970s, he envisioned the venue as a mecca for gamblers from Southern California, a segment that to this day remains Las Vegas’ largest source of visitors. Boyd signaled his intent both in the hotel’s name and in its Gold Rush-era decor. But within months of the California Hotel’s opening on New Year’s Eve 1975, it became clear that downtown didn’t need another Western-themed casino, especially one located so far off Fremont Street.

With the Cal struggling to attract customers, Boyd decided he needed a new niche. His choice of Hawaii wasn’t arbitrary. From 1935 to 1940, he had lived in Hawaii running underground bingo parlors in Honolulu and Hilo. (Hawaii, Utah and Tennessee are the only states where all forms of gambling are illegal.) “He said, ‘I know the Hawaiians, and we will make the California their home away from home,’ ” recalls Sam Boyd’s son, Bill, who succeeded his father as Boyd Gaming’s chairman.

The Boyds aggressively courted the Island market. They visited travel agencies and airline booking agents based in Hawaii, and put together an exclusive “Hawaiians only” package deal: four nights and five days of lodging, plus three meals a day, for $9.70. The absurdly low price tag reflected both Vegas’ twisted economy and Sam Boyd’s take on his Hawaiian clientele. He figured he could afford to heavily subsidize their trips because people raised on a sheltered tropical island would be more likely than the average adventure-seeking tourist to stay put in his casino once they got there. And the more time they spent there, the more they would gamble.

John Repetti, who started his career at the California Hotel as a dice dealer in 1976 and today serves as its general manager, explains Boyd’s thinking this way: “If someone plays long enough, eventually the casino will win what it is supposed to win.”

Sam Boyd died in 1992, but his philosophy of making it cheap and easy for Hawaiians to visit Las Vegas remains at the core of the Boyd company’s strategy for promoting its three downtown casinos. The original room-and-meals package for Hawaii residents, and anyone who can prove they were born on the islands, now costs $110, with Hawaiians making up 80% of the Cal’s guests, up from about one-third in the late 1970s. The Gold Rush design scheme is gone, replaced by dealers in Aloha shirts, a stand selling Lappert’s Hawaiian ice cream, and a coffee shop that serves such traditional Hawaiian favorites as saimin noodles, oxtail soup and mahi-mahi sandwiches. In the gift shops, guests can buy the Honolulu newspapers, packages of dried mango and beef jerky, and T-shirts imprinted with frogs, a symbol of good fortune in Hawaii.

“Hawaiian people are big gamblers,” explains Aileen Cabrol, a 65-year-old Oahu woman who is waiting for her daughter in the California Hotel lobby, accompanied by her 84-year-old aunt and a sister, age 70. She echoes a view expressed repeatedly among Hawaiians in Vegas as an accepted fact, without any self-consciousness or fear of stereotyping. Cabrol casually mentions that her sister is carrying more than $5,000 in gambling money. “If they can’t come up with $1,000,” she says, “the Hawaii people don’t bother to come.”

Some trace this propensity for gambling to everything from gaming’s outlawed status in Hawaii to the mixed-race heritage of Asian Hawaiians. “The Japanese women love to play cards, and the men, when they were working for plantations, there were a lot of poker [games] going on,” explains Flo Wasai, a retired 7th-grade teacher from Oahu who was attending her husband’s high school reunion at the Cal. “The Filipinos have chicken fighting. I guess it’s just that gambling is legal here. We have to get off the rock sometime.”

Of their long allegiance to the California Hotel, several longtime customers say they like staying somewhere where they can eat their customary cuisine and don’t have to worry about looking out of place. “A lot of the Hawaii people are not very secure about traveling. Here it’s kind of a protected environment,” Wasai says. Other repeat visitors from Honolulu say that the hotel’s package deals make it less expensive for them to go to Las Vegas than it would be to visit Maui or Kauai--that is, if you don’t include what they spend playing the slots.

“Everybody likes to come here because the Aloha Spirit at the California Hotel makes you feel welcome,” says Hawaii native Malia Blume, a Las Vegas resident since 1979 who spent the spring organizing a reunion for her far-flung family of mainlanders as well as Hawaii residents. (Her family’s last reunion five years ago also was held at the Cal.) “It’s centrally located and it’s so affordable. Plus, when you come here, at least you get the chance to make your money back.”

But it’s more than a simple dollars-and-cents equation. Boyd Gaming has worked hard through the years to send its Hawaiian patrons the message that they and their money matter. Every year in Honolulu, the company hosts a huge “Mahalo” (thank you) party at the Sheraton Waikiki, where its customers get to consume free drinks and food and exchange pleasantries with company executives. Every other month, 80,000 households in Hawaii receive a glossy “News At The Cal” newsletter featuring the names, photographs and hometowns of anyone who has recently won more than $1,000.

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.

So in the process of executing his vision, Sam Boyd transformed thousands of lives in ways he probably never imagined--lives like that of Ransen Borges, who to this day isn’t sure how he ended up in Las Vegas after the collapse of his Hawaii-based promotional goods business. “I wanted to move to Seattle, but I ended up in Las Vegas like everyone else, even though I don’t gamble,” he says. His five-person family arrived in Las Vegas on a Super Bowl Sunday, when the temperature outside was 49 degrees. After five minutes in the dry air, his 5-year-old daughter’s nose started bleeding. When they got to the house they were renting, the family cat took off, never to be seen again.

It felt like an omen, a “big-time bad omen,” recalls Borges, who was born and raised in Hawaii and whose family had lived there for at least four generations. “The next day I said, ‘You know what? We’re going home. The cat’s gone. It’s freezing. I cannot stand this place. We’re leaving. Today.’ ”

That was “seven long years” ago, Borges says. Yet what did they have to go back to? They had sold his business, their house and their two cars, and either sold or given away all of their furniture. So they stayed and bought new furniture, put the kids in school and started looking for work. “The first hotel I walked into, they hired me,” Borges says, who signed on at Excalibur Hotel as a claims adjuster handling liability cases. Within a year and a half, he had an even better job, as director of risk management at the Luxor.

The money was good and his children thrived. His in-laws and twin brother followed them to Las Vegas. He figures that the exposure to new places and people, and even the unpleasant sting of racial discrimination, has been good for his kids. During their time in Las Vegas, they’ve been to Morro Bay to look for jade, surfed in Southern California, and gone to see Indian reservations and national parks in Utah and Arizona.

Occasionally, though, the weight of what he has given up hits Borges like a North Shore wave. “I remember the first time I drove out to Lake Mead, I almost cried because I couldn’t see the other side,” he says. “And when I went down to where the beach supposedly is and all I found was a mud flat, I almost cried again.”

Borges has never been back to Hawaii, and last year took a $50,000-a-year pay cut to become assistant to the pastor of Thy Word Ministries, a 150-member “Island-style” church in Las Vegas founded by a husband-and-wife team who also operate four churches in Hawaii.

Pastor George Kamakahi, who founded the church for which Borges now works, says that when he was first approached about starting a ministry in Las Vegas, “I wasn’t open to it at all because I didn’t like it up here, I thought it was ugly.” During the next two years, however, Kamakahi came to believe that God wanted him to make the journey “to reach the Polynesians,” wherever they might be. So he and his wife, along with eight other families, moved to Las Vegas two years ago. These days, his Sunday morning services in a new shopping center on the southern limit of the city draw about 150 people.

Some believe that the flow of Hawaiians to Las Vegas may already have reached its peak. No new luxury hotels have gone up on the Strip since the Aladdin opened two years ago, and many of the construction workers have gone home to Hawaii, where the economy is improving. Borges has heard the news and is hoping to move his family back to Hawaii by year’s end. Some, like Phyllis Matsuda, president of the University of Hawaii Alumni Assn.’s Las Vegas Chapter, have made peace with their choices, maintaining that they have gotten more in touch with Hawaiian culture now that they are so far removed from it. She learned to play the ukulele and dance hula only after she and her husband retired to Las Vegas 12 years ago.

“I hear it all the time--why in the world would you want to go to the desert? There is nothing there but gray and brown,” says Matsuda. “But little by little, you pick up on the subtle beauty of the desert and you come to appreciate it. It’s still brown and gray, but then you start to notice the purples and oranges, too.”

Others, such as Chan, are bitter about their Las Vegas experience. Chan’s dream of becoming a regional wholesale distributor of Hawaiian goods never got off the ground. “We saw a lot of locals here, but we never figured out that the ones who moved here are coming with no furniture or nothing and need to have their disposable income to spend on something else besides Hawaiian goods,” Chan says. Chan still operates a small retail store in Las Vegas, but says he makes most of his sales through the Internet.

Business remains strong at the Cal, though. Several years ago, Boyd Gaming started offering daily nonstop charter flights from Honolulu to Las Vegas. The 747s operate 99% full, since the company can drop ticket prices whenever sales get sluggish. Says the hotel’s John Repetti: “At the end of four days, it’s all going to come out in the wash. We are not about roller coasters and health spas. We are about playtime and treating people correctly.”

Some say Boyd Gaming won’t be able to keep the place filled with its aging Hawaiian regulars. The company, which now owns 12 casinos in five states and is developing a $1-billion resort in Atlantic City, seems already to have anticipated that day; it has dedicated the parking lot where Lei Day Las Vegas has been held for the past five years to a 7,500-seat city-owned events center that is expected to draw a younger and more diverse crowd.

In the meantime, Boyd continues to put its faith in those lucky frogs. Since December, three Hawaii residents have won multimillion-dollar jackpots at one of the Boyd properties, two of them within a month of each other at the Cal. News of the windfalls was carried from the casino’s marketing department to its faithful guests via the Honolulu newspapers and radio stations.

Of course, you don’t have to look very hard to see how those gilded fairy tales have undeniable appeal to people whose dreams are always just out of reach. One of those who heard about the recent winning streaks was 49-year-old Florentina Ballesteros, a native Filipina who lives on Oahu with her disabled Hawaii-born husband and 17-year-old son. To support her family, Ballesteros works two jobs, in a hospital cafeteria and a restaurant. A healthy income tax refund made possible a spring visit to Las Vegas, the only place on the mainland she and her son have ever been. (The family has come once a year for each of the last 10 years.) As they made their way past the rows of ringing slot machines, it looked like just another Hawaiian clan on its way to a breakfast of Spam, undercooked eggs and rice.

“The first time I came to Las Vegas, I felt so great. And I thought, maybe if we come, I can recycle my energy,” she says. “Here, even if you are only playing five cents, you lose your stress.”

As it turned out, though, she was unable to parlay her tax refund into a windfall. After food, lodging and airfare, she had $300 left for gambling. Within hours of the family’s arrival, it was gone. Now, the morning after, she is sinking into the black vinyl seat of a video poker machine, weeping and remembering the co-workers who criticized her for going to Vegas, for being too extravagant. What right did a person of limited means have to go flying off like some high roller?

“I told them the reason I come here is to make myself happy, and that’s how I feel about it,” she says through fresh tears. “If I don’t come here, I feel bad. I feel hopeless. Only my dreams make me alive.”

Ballesteros’ husband gently reminds his wife that they have friends waiting in the coffee shop. Slouching by the elevator doors, her son is getting antsy, too. She wipes her eyes and smooths her floral-print shirt. Rising to go, she asks if she could have a spare quarter “for luck.” Taking the coin and rubbing it between her fingers, she says she’ll play it after breakfast. Maybe someone else’s good fortune might become hers.