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Memphis Flyer Orient Express

Cultures combine at Gold Strike Casino's Orient Night

By Mary Cashiola

JULY 5, 1999:  I am trapped in a crush of people. I can't move. Not forward, not backward. So I stand and wait. And I'm trying to be unobtrusive, but I stand out. Not only am I alone, I'm not Asian.

I'm in line for free tickets to Orient Night at Gold Strike Casino. The event has proved popular at other casinos in the region, so organizers are trying it out in Tunica for the first time.

As the group in front of me talk among themselves, I look away -- at the ceiling, at the floor. I'm almost right on top of them; even though I don't understand Vietnamese, I still feel a little rude. It's getting close to show time and nervous chatter runs through the crowd. I don't understand it, but I see people checking their watches with concern. The group inches en masse toward the ticket counter. People, seemingly spontaneously, start pushing and shoving towards the front.

The uniformed Gold Strike employees attempt to keep peace. There aren't many tickets left. The shoving gets violent -- I fear for my life. I get a ticket and head upstairs to the theatre.

"Are you here for the games or the show?" asks a man near me. He's middle-aged and appears to be alone as well. I tell him I'm here for the show and he nods, "Me, too." He says his name is Thai and we walk into the theatre together.

The theatre is packed. Most of the audience is Asian, and there's a good mix of young and old. Derek Arnold, an executive host at Gold Strike and one of the organizers of Orient Night, had said that they were expecting 1,000 to 3,000 people. I'd say it's closer to 3.

A lively, comically suave man comes out on stage and starts talking. Thai turns to me and says that the show is just starting. I've been wondering how all these people heard about the event, so I ask, "How did you find out about this?"

"He's telling me right now," Thai says. It takes me a moment to realize that he thinks I've asked him how he knows the show is beginning. He explains: "This is aimed at the Vietnamese community so most of it's in Vietnamese."

The host, Viet Thao, keeps talking and the crowd laughs and applauds as one. Thai tells me that he is telling a story about gambling in the casino.

"Every time people applaud, he gets some more money," Thai says. The next time the crowd applauds, I clap my hands, too.

The first performer is introduced and he runs out jauntily. He is wearing a black suit emblazoned with rhinestones. "Helloo," he says in a very deep voice. As he talks to the crowd, I catch the words "Jailhouse Rock."

Then the host is back, and with him is a beautiful woman in a red dress. She is Mrs. All Nations Universal 1995. The two banter awards-show-style, and then the woman starts talking. The crowd goes wild with laughter.

"What'd she say? What'd she say?" I want to be in on the joke, too."She was telling a story," Thai tells me, "about a kid who went to the doctor but he had a really funny name so he was just Funny Name."

I guess it loses something in translation. Thai sees I still don't get the joke and he tells me the funny name in Vietnamese. I force a laugh. "Most of the stories go back to gambling or talk about the casino," Thai says. He doesn't try to explain any more jokes.

Another singer comes out, a woman with long, flowing hair. Thai tells me that she's in traditional Vietnamese dress. She is wearing a black outfit with high slits up the sides and white, billowy pants underneath. After she sings an anguished ballad, she speaks to the crowd in a soft voice.

"She's going to sing with no music," Thai says as the onstage band leaves.

Individual audience members are shouting as a man from the front row runs up on stage and hands her a piece of paper. She looks at it and smiles; the man excitedly hops up and down and yells, "Yes! Yes!" before returning to his seat. He looks like he's the winner of a game show. I'm baffled.

"She's singing for the musicians on break. People are trying to give her the songs they want her to sing," explains Thai. "She's nervous; they're asking for songs she doesn't know."

The next singer is not so traditional. She walks out in skin-tight, low-cut, black pedal-pushers and a shiny halter top and breaks into a cover of a Cher song. Turning her almost-bare back to the audience, she dances around -- this girl knows how to shake her booty.

"She's one of the most famous singers for her youth," Thai says. "She's sexy, she sings good, she dances good." He tells me her American name is Linda, but her Vietnamese name is Trang Dai. "When she sings, everyone dances," Thai adds.

A little while later, the lively host is back. I catch him say "casino" and "good luck to everyone." He keeps talking but people have already started exiting the theatre. By the time he says "good night," the theatre is mostly empty.

Walking out of the darkened theatre, my eyes barely adjusted, I see people. A crush of people. They are already waiting for the next show.

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