What happens in Beijing…

How a local newspaper squandered a terrific opportunity

Back when I lived in and covered Beijing earlier this decade, I used to have this odd little game I played with my friends.

My core group included women from Des Moines and Brisbane, Australia, and guys from Seattle, Manchester, United Kingdom, and Victoria, British Columbia. From time to time in our travels across the country, we'd chat up native Chinese, usually people who spoke some English, on a train or at a bar or at a restaurant. Two of my friends were becoming fluent in Mandarin, so they were at that stage when they would try out their language skills.

But here was the game: We'd meet these folks, and we'd introduce ourselves. And I would always go last. My friends would each introduce themselves and state their city or nation of origin.

And then it would be my turn, and I'd say "Las Vegas," and the reaction would be instantaneous. Eyes would brighten at those syllables, the interest would always turn my way, and almost without fail somebody would make a motion as if to pull the lever on an invisible slot machine.

Which is a long way of saying that the Review-Journal sent doofus sportswriter Ed Graney to China, and, in the process of providing the idiot's guide to Chinese customs and tourist destinations and some serviceable coverage of the sporting events occurring there, he missed the best story that was waiting for him.

I have to believe it was right in front of him. There was never a time when I was over there that I said "Vegas"—to anyone, including people who didn't speak a word of English—and didn't elicit a reaction. Surely he discovered this. The only indication we have, though, is a silly blog post about what some Australians, who were also other journalists, thought of Las Vegas, and a short bit about encountering a pair of Chinese interns whose wisest observation of our city was, "One dollar, touch butt."

So I decided to do the assignment for ol' Ed. Since I couldn't make it back to Beijing for the Olympics, I went on a few Chinese-English websites and posted an inquiry asking for Chinese views and impressions of Las Vegas. Then I also hopped onto Skype, the international voice-over-IP and instant-message service, and randomly sent notes to dozens of people whose profiles said they were from Beijing or other Chinese cities.

"When I think of Las Vegas," wrote back one Skyper, Zhizhu Xiong, "I think of the only American city I want to see. It is different and separate from America; it is a place where people can have fun and dance."

This was a common theme. In one discussion, I asked a 22-year-old woman how many American cities she knew. "I know of five, I think." Which ones? "New York, Hollywood, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas and Cambridge." Cambridge? "The home for Harvard," I was reminded.

Some of the responses were typical of what I found earlier this decade when I resided in China. The international image of Vegas is dominated, of course, by gambling ("I do not understand this game of craps you play, it is so bizarre"), strippers ("Showgirls is my favorite movie ever, but I also liked Ocean's 11, the new one with George Clooney") and fantastical buildings ("I can go to Vegas, and then I do not need to see New York or Paris. That saves money.").

Several people mentioned Céline Dion, the Rat Pack and Elvis Presley, and a surprising number of folks asked how Siegfried & Roy are. Turns out, the onstage tiger attack on Roy in 2003 was front-page news over there for weeks. And, like most of my editors at American newspapers, the Chinese don't know which illusionist is which.

But beyond all the pop-cultural awareness, the topic of Macau became a fascinating offshoot thread on one message board. One 35-year-old in Shanghai who works in the "financial services sector" was alarmed by the Vegas incursion into Chinese territory in Macau. The fact that Wynn Resorts, Las Vegas Sands and MGM Mirage have spent billions on casinos in the special administrative region smacked to some of a latter-day form of imperialism. "I do not think the Chinese should allow foreigners to come in and take all our money like that," he wrote.

The next poster disagreed, and cited the huge revenues the Macanese government is reaping to argue that the central government should legalize casinos on the mainland. And that prompted a Chinese woman named Yvonne to worry that "all Chinese have potential to be addicted to gambling. It is in our blood. We will be in trouble if we legalize that." Clearly, this is an ongoing debate prompted in large part by the export of Las Vegas.

One of the most refreshing parts of these conversations and posts was the utter lack of any reference to the ubiquitous, painfully tired Vegas tagline, "What happens here, stays here." I did some of this reporting while listening to speeches at the National Clean Energy Summit at UNLV last week, where at least five speakers, including Sen. Harry Reid, thought themselves clever by saying that the alternative-energy ideas being put forth there must defy the slogan and "must not stay in Vegas."

I asked several of my Chinese respondents online if they knew the slogan. Almost nobody did. Can you imagine? A place where nobody has heard of WHHSH?

Vegas and Beijing have a lot in common. Both expand at dizzying paces. Both are divided into the parts outsiders see and the rest. Both are mysterious and badly misunderstood by non-residents.

It would have been nice if the one Las Vegas print reporter who spent the Olympics in China had recognized the similarities and worked harder to make the connection. Instead, sadly, we are left with these four observant words: "One dollar, touch butt."

What a missed opportunity.


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