From Las Vegas With Love

From Las Vegas With Love
Sunrisers in Vegas – from left, Billy V, Grace Lee, Steve Uyehara, Lacey Deniz and the author.

On the surface there is little to compare Hawaii with Las Vegas. But we call Las Vegas the ninth island and some of us visit two or three times a year, staying at the same hotel, playing the same games, and eating the same Hawaii-popular dishes at the same restaurants.

Las Vegas is a metro area of 2.2 million. That’s more than the entire population of Hawaii. Hawaii has a royal past and an agrarian background; Vegas was founded in the middle of the desert as a watering hole for steam locomotives on the Union Pacific Railway main line from Ogden, Utah, to Los Angeles. The double-track main is still there. Long trains rumble by under a full moon.

Gambling in Hawaii is small-time: occasionally-raided games in Chinatown, cockfights hither and yon that can double as unofficial farmer’s markets and craft fairs. Las Vegas, on the other hand, is as big-time as American gaming gets.

Sam Boyd lived in Honolulu and in Hilo, working in the illegal gambling scene. When he bought Las Vegas’ California Hotel out of receivership in the early 1970s (before the Eagles sang “Hotel California” in 1976; their hotel was metaphorical and unrelated) he had the idea of catering to Hawaii residents with charter flights and Hawaii food. His son Bill, his own hair now white but genial and sharp, told me his dad sent his executive chef to Hawaii to learn what Hawaii residents (Bill still uses the term “Hawaiians” for all who live in the islands but gets a pass because of his years, that being the Hawaiian way) eat and how to make it. He also told his workers to wear aloha shirts – and to be cool when guests left their slippas outside their room.

Las Vegas is not a scenic town, but Hawaii residents live amid some of the finest scenery in the world. Only someone who lives in a drab place would ask why Hawaii residents don’t save up their vacation days to seek out a scenic locale. It is also true that a mainlander who lives with 10 million or 20 million other people in a single metro area, who rarely sees any friend or relative at the mall, whose hundreds of fellow high school classmates have nearly all moved away, might have difficulty understanding the Hawaii classmates who mostly still live on the same island and seldom have much catching up to do, hold their reunions in Vegas, not so much to “reunite,” having never been scattered much, but to party.

Hawaii residents often work in hospitality, and when they do move away it is often to work at hotels from the same chain that employed them in the islands. When I lived in D.C. and my wife Marilyn drove a Saab with a license plate that said HOKULEA, the only time anyone recognized the name it was a Hawaii-born valet at the Marriott in downtown Richmond, Va. (Earlier, when her vanity tags read KPOI, no one in D.C. got it (one engineer asked her if it meant “1,000 fish.”) It stands to reason that many hospitality workers moving to the mainland would wind up in Las Vegas, often working for Boyd Gaming. And by degrees it would become common knowledge that everything was more affordable in Las Vegas including housing.

On our visit to Vegas – the Sunrise crew flew there Friday night, shot features Saturday and Sunday, and broadcast the show live Monday and Tuesday – we stayed in the California Hotel, full of people we knew, and also met kama’aina ex-pats who now own homes in Vegas. It was this latter group that showed us that Vegas is more than a place where locals visit and former locals live. The locals who live there, to ameliorate their homesickness and to nurture their lifestyles, throw local-style parties for themselves – leave you slippas at the door – they make their own localkine foods for these parties, and to bring to the sports bar at the Cal to watch the same games they would watch here in the islands.

The “ninth island” is a love letter to Hawaii, an ongoing celebration of Hawaii by the people who appreciate Hawaii with poignancy, because, for career reasons, or to afford a home, they have felt obliged to go somewhere else. Any place is best appreciated from somewhere else. That’s why the same people who look forward to trips to Las Vegas spend their return flights thinking how much they look forward to being home.