Sunday, October 14, 2012


... comes out in Show & Tell

(Continuing our series The Tiger Father and Family Do America. This is the extended, 'director's cut' of my column which first appeared in That's Beijing magazine this month).

IN their first week at big school our five-year-old daughter Evie and her classmates had to take something special to them, so they could get to know each other.

“I know!” she said, “I’ll take what I won from horse racing in Las Vegas!”

For a minute I thought about this and the impression it could create, not least on the teacher we’d only just met. But five-year-olds can be very imaginative. As I always say, it’s not what it looks like.

For starters, I was the one who won. Racing triumphs are hard won things, so I’d just like that to be clear. Evie was a mere spectator, cheering my noble steed to the line.

Then I was awarded the proceeds, which I handed to Evie. It wasn’t cold hard cash but a teddy bear.

Second, they weren’t real horses. They were made of tin, and shuffled along a little track at a rate determined by how fast I could roll balls into holes in this sideshow alley game at the Circus Circus casino.

So it’s true. We did take our kids to Vegas. That surprises people who envisage a cesspit of gambling dens, fake breasts and heavy drinking. But we didn’t just go there for that. And we didn’t just go there, either. We went there for 10 days.

Las Vegas - the jewel of the desert, during our visit.

Naaaaah, you big silly! That wasn't Las Vegas. That was Venice, Italy.

This is Las Vegas here ...

And here. Thankfully it's all indoors, so your gelati won't
get wet. This is in the Venetian casino. It comes complete
with real pigeons. But after a while you notice the clouds
don't move.

This, too, is Las Vegas ...

... and so is this. This is me with Evie. Vegas really is a
magical kingdom. This isn't, however, a replica of the
original kingdom of Disneyland. It's the Excalibur
casino, where you can revel with ye olde knights and
eat chicken legs with your bare hands, etc.
And gamble.

Ah. An Eiffel Tower, an Egyptian obelisk, a pyramid
and a Sphinx. This must be Vegas! Someone once
said nothing looks out of place in Vegas, because
there's nothing that really should be there anyway.
The Sphinx, by the way, is much bigger than the
real one. So why go all the way to Egypt?

Americans feel you go to Vegas for maybe 48 – at most 72 - hours of fun then go home to recover. So for us to take a five and seven-year-old for as long as we did – you could say it raised eyebrows.

But as I also always say, I can explain: We had a month for a USA holiday. We wanted some beach time. Hawaii was too expensive, so we thought we’d hit the beach in Vegas.

The Mandalay Bay hotel boasts the world’s largest fake beach and another swimming option called the Lazy River. The idea was to relax by the pool in the day and see shows at night. And eat well. Vegas no longer boasts only $3.99 all-you-can-make-a-pig-of-yourself-with buffets. It has some fine, high-end restaurants, with celebrity chefs in pony-tails.

And there are quality shows by the likes of Cirque du Soleil and some renowned magicians, plus day-trips to the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam. So it wasn’t just about making money. In any event, teaching a seven-year-old how to count cards in 10 days is hard.

The question of where to holiday is always tricky for Beijing expats. Do you want somewhere to just sit, swim and breath the non-toxic air away from the hustle of 20 million people?

Or do you go for the double-edge sword that is a “holiday” back home. There’s the seemingly endless social engagements – dinners, lunches, breakfasts - where you go through the same stories about what Beijing is like. (This is a great reason to start a blog.) There’s catching up with relatives – all-too-rushed moments with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, some of whom are just faint memories or staccato-voiced Skype images to your kids. Usually, just when everyone’s got comfortable it’s time to move on to the next house/bed/set of kids.

One year we took the bold step of just plonking down in a beachside rental apartment in Sydney for three weeks and telling everyone: “This is where we are – you can come see us.”

Of course nobody came. By God it was relaxing.

Our theory on Vegas was sound. I’d seen it before, when I stayed for two weeks. OK, now it seems like I have a Vegas problem. But that time really was about pure gambling, to earn my airfare home. So I didn’t see the family side.

That time, I had a meticulous plan. I arrived in town with $20 to my name. Using my foolproof roulette system, I would steadily build up a bank until being routinely approached by strange women and, finally, being asked to leave town by some heavies.

It almost worked. After two weeks I was $900 in front. My roulette system is successful but, alright, I’ll concede it’s very slow. One night with my chips stacked high I did get approached by a woman. No she wasn’t acting in a professional capacity. But by this stage I was a hopeless , quivering mass of superstitions. Whether touched by the Navajo vibe, or by alcohol, I’d become convinced my winning streak depended not on the roll of the ball but other factors. These included, among others, where I stood at the table, how many times I clicked my heels together as the ball rolled, the gender and race of the croupier (Latin men lucky, Chinese women inscrutably unlucky), and the little mantra I spoke each time (I can’t repeat it here. Not because it involved swearing, but because it’s just too embarrassing). By the time this hapless and quite attractive young woman appeared to strike up a conversation, she was so not a part of my scene she might as well have had snakes coming out of her hair. I hissed her away.

I eventually left town, not because I was asked to, but because I gave back $200 in a night and concluded my luck had dried up.

This time I would see a different Vegas. My wife Stef has always wanted to go, not for gambling but to satisfy her love of kitsch. She couldn’t live there because it’s far too hot. But she probably could live in a snowdome with a little plastic Elvis.

This is also in a Vegas casino ...

... and this was in ours. Thankfully well away from us.

And this? Well, this is what you might call a Vegas palate
cleanser - somewhere really boring where nothing happens
and which serves as an antidote to all the hullabaloo
of the main strip. It's a cactus garden that someone in our
family thought might be a worthwhile place to visit.
Thankfully, unlike the big casinos, you don't get lost
wandering around and you can get out of it quickly. 

Here's daughter Lani, achieving a
lifelong dream in meeting magician
Mac King. No, none of us had ever
heard of him before. But by golly
he was good. King does a magic and
comedy show at Harrah's which was
my favourite of all Vegas shows.
Unlike some of the more ostentatious
magic shows, King does his tricks
well while making fun of 'magic'.
Well worth a look.

In the end it was fun but everyone was right. After six days we were Vegassed-out. The “relaxing” pool had booming dance music from 9.00am til dark. You could pay a king’s ransom for a cabana or lie, fry and possibly die in the 40 degree sun. “Lazy River” was more like “Surging Torrent” as we battled to avoid being squished against its walls by throngs of very large and often very drunk people.

The shows were mostly excellent but in moving around casinos to watch them, we were spoiled for extravagance. And jaded. It was like living with Liberace.

We saw an indoor Venice, jousting on real horses, the world’s biggest fountains (both the water and chocolate varieties), a Sphinx, circus acts, lions and tigers and sharks oh my. We petted stingrays, watched a lady get sawn in half, mercifully at a magic show, and went indoor sky-diving. But by day seven of this glam-a-thon we could have seen a bike-riding panda juggling fire and said “Meh”.

We’d probably condense it next time. Still, the kids got some fun memories, even if I didn’t let Evie go to school showing off her proceeds from the track.

Here's the family inside the Bellagio. It's
adorned with 2000 glass flowers which
were hand-blown by albino pygmies
from a lost city in Bhutan, or something.

And this is a huge, erm, adornment, at the show La Reve.
By this point of our stay, I was what you might call
"lavish-stage-showed-out". La Reve was pretty good, but
of all the big ones I felt Cirque du Soleil's Ka was best.

Here we are taking in a spot of indoor skydiving. That's
our beloved Evie, 5, in the hands of a complete stranger,
floating about an enormous propeller. We were wondering
what sort of parents we were as we went through a
safety instruction in which the phrase "You could die
doing this" kept popping up. At least there's a safety
net above the propeller.

And here's Lani disappearing upwards from shot with the
same man. Despite the warning, this was still most
probably safer than outdoor skydiving. Or getting
hit by a bus.

Then it was my turn. Elevation was bit harder to achieve
for a grown-up. And this was the split-second in which
our instructor let me go before grabbing me again, lest
I be splattered against the wall. No, it's fairly safe. And
a lot of fun.


  1. Guess where people in Hawaii go to vacation? That's right, Vegas. It makes sense, no? What's Hawaii got-- mountains, ocean, no real stores, humidity. Vegas? Flat, dry, rampant consumerism.... It's a win-win for everybody except me who longs for a damn art museum and a book reading by some dude in a black turtleneck.

  2. So what did she take to Show and Tell??

  3. Oh yeah ... she took a bag of rocks!
    Better than it sounds. They were polished and colourful. And all the way from Monument Valley.