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Celebrating Asian-Pacific Heritage Month: A Look at Asian-Pacific Entertainers on the Las Vegas Strip

By Su Kim Chung on May 21, 2015 6:30 PM | Permalink

Las Vegas Show Programs Collection MS-00333

Entertainment on the Las Vegas Strip has a rich and glamorous history .  It most commonly brings to mind images of the Rat Pack cavorting on stage in the Copa Room at the Sands Hotel or of glittering showgirls descending staircases in spectacular headdresses in elaborate production shows such as the Lido de Paris or Folies Bergere.  Perhaps less known were the contributions of performers of Asian-Pacific heritage – those of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Hawaiian, Filipino, Polynesian and Tahitian ancestry for example.

In celebration of Asian-Pacific Heritage Month – here is a brief look at some Asian-Pacific entertainers who have appeared on the Las Vegas Strip.  This is by no means a comprehensive look at the contributions of these entertainers, but does provide evidence that Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, both those born in America and immigrants to these shores, were represented in the talented mix of performers and shows that have contributed to Las Vegas entertainment history through the years. All material was drawn from UNLV Special Collections. 
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Showgirl Gina Mo was a rarity among Asian-American performers in that she appeared in a production show that was not centered around an Asian theme – in 1955 she appeared in the newly-opened Dunes Hotel/Casino in their Magic Carpet Revue which featured a star headliner and a cast of some sixty dancers and showgirls. 

Dunes Hotel Collection MS-00328 

Photos released by the Dunes in 1955 showing Mo dressed in the traditional Chinese cheongsam are in stark contrast to shots of her posing in a bikini by the Dunes Hotel pool.  The press release that accompanied these photos noted that she was the daughter of a Chinese Episcopalian bishop and that she had “fled the Reds in Kunming in 1949 to come to the United States where she entered Carnegie Tech.” Her husband was an American GI stationed in Korea.

From an early performance of Hilo Hattie and her Tahitian dancers at the Frontier Hotel in the 1950s to Dick Jensen’s "Aloha Hawaii" at the Landmark Hotel in the 1970s, acts featuring Polynesian or Hawaiian-themed dancers and singers also made up the spectrum of Asian-Pacific entertainers on the Las Vegas Strip.

Las Vegas Show Programs Collection MS-00333

Don Ho was certainly one of the biggest headliners of Asian-Pacific heritage to appear on stage in Las Vegas – here he is shown in an early performance in the Copa Room at the Sands Hotel in 1967.  Ho, who like many Hawaiians was of mixed Chinese, Hawaiian and Portuguese ancestry, went on to have have a very successful singing career and appeared at many venues on the Las Vegas Strip including the Flamingo Hotel.

Sands Hotel Collection MS-00417

The 1950s did not see Asian-American headliners featured on the Strip, but Asian-themed Broadway musical theatre hits such as Flower Drum Song (Thunderbird Hotel), The World of Suzy Wong  (Riviera Hotel), and Holiday in Japan (Frontier Hotel) were popular.  Some cast members such as Jack Soo, Robert Ito, and James Shigeta would go on to achieve greater success in Hollywood movies and television.

Las Vegas Show Programs Collection MS-00333

Las Vegas Show Programs Collection MS-00333

Las Vegas Show Programs Collection MS-00333

Ensemble revues such as the China Doll Revue (which appeared in 1956 and 1959) clearly marketed the exoticness of their "oriental" casts in publicity and promotional material – here one of the China Dolls – poses in a typical cheesecake photo at the Thunderbird Hotel Pool for the cover of the most significant entertainment magazine in Las Vegas --Fabulous Las Vegas –in the 1950s. Notably, the inside caption describing the cover image pointed out that cover girl Mae Tai Sing “dislikes chop suey and loves sirloin steak.

Las Vegas Show Programs Collection MS-00333

Fabulous Las Vegas Magazine (UNLV Special Collections Periodicals)

One of the most popular Asian-American acts to appear on the Las Vegas Strip were the Kim Sisters.  Immigrants from Korea – the three multi-talented sisters were known for playing numerous instruments and sang a variety of songs.  In addition to playing many hotels in Las Vegas such as the Thunderbird, Stardust, , the Kim Sisters were a favorite of Ed Sullivan who featured them on a number of episodes of his variety show in the 1960s.  In a 1996 oral history interview with former UNLV Libraries Associate Dean Myoung-Ja Lee Kwon, the eldest of the three Kim sisters, Sook-Ja Kim, discusses other Asian-American acts that appeared on the Strip during the 1960s-70s such as Toyko Happy Coats, Korean Kittens and Filipino group, Sunspot.

Kim Sisters Collection MS-00633

Tokyo Holiday was a Japanese revue that appeared at the Thunderbird Hotel in 1969.  A color photograph of the performers in traditional Japanese dress is shown here.

Thunderbird Hotel Collection MS-00180

It was followed by Geisharella, a popular show at the Thunderbird Hotel and Casino in 1971 that featured international star Takuchi Keigo surrounded by his Imperial Japanese dancers.  Although the dancers were garbed in traditional Japanese Geisha costumes in the show’s opening, they would appear topless later in the show thus mixing the traditions of the East with the traditions of Las Vegas production shows such as the Lido de Paris and Folies Bergere.

Thunderbird Hotel Collection MS-00180

Thunderbird Hotel Collection MS-00180