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From Chinatown to Steeltown, Asian riders cash in on casino cards

Call reporter Matt Assad

Three Lehigh Valley journalists who investigated an underground economy involving the Sands Casino and thousands of its Asian patrons from New York spoke Tuesday at the Main campus.

Reporters Matt Assad and Pam Lehman, and photographer Kevin Mingora of The Morning Call spent months overcoming language and cultural barriers to try to understand why so many people were spending long hours on buses between their homes and the Bethlehem casino every day, and how they were making money doing so.

The Sands offers a free $45 play-card to customers who travel to its casino on buses traveling from places like Flushing, Brooklyn and Chinatown. Flushing has an estimated Asian population of 44 percent, and more than half of the 50 buses that travel to the casino come from this area.

“People would spend hours on the buses to get and sell the cards,” Assad said. “People on a low income would ride every day, sometimes for up to 16 hours. Many were very poor or homeless, and this free play-card became their source of income.

The system allowed visitors to buy a bus ticket for $15 and walk away from the casino having turned a profit every time. After receiving their cards as they got off their bus in Bethlehem, they would sell them for $40 to a regular contact inside the casino.

Using Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking students from Lehigh University as translators, the journalists found that some were making as much as $1,200 a month simply by riding the buses, collecting the cards and then selling them inside the casino.

“Once we had translators, the passengers were surprisingly willing to talk,” Assad said. “They were funny, polite and respectful. They just needed someone who could speak their language to tell their story.”

Assad and Mingora traveled to Flushing to investigate the bus system, and found bakeries that turned into bus depots at night.

“It all felt underground in Flushing,” Mingora said. “There were no real bus depots, but the buses ran (all day until) midnight and on one street we found four or five different casino buses.”

The pursuit of the plastic card involves a five-hour wait between buses in Bethlehem, which led to an influx of Asian passengers fanning out across the city to kill time until their ride home, which stirred some opposition among local residents.

“The staff of one grocery store in the town had to learn how to say ‘Limit of two’ in Mandarin because many Asian people coming into Bethlehem on these buses were buying dozens of eggs on sale in bulk to take back to Flushing and resell, Lehman said.

Assad and Lehman learned from Bethlehem police that riders has built impressive make-shift shelters around town where waiting passengers would hang out until time to return home.

Local residents also complained of the bus riders hunting for frogs around waterways and even carrying dead geese and snakes into the casino for good luck, although these reports were not confirmed, said Assad, who called them urban legends.

“A lot of the complaints would not have been made if these were the neighborhood kids and not Asians,” he said.

The cultural shift caused by the surge of Asians into Bethlehem led to the Sands hiring more than 400 Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking staff, but the shift did not sit well with some Bethlehem residents.

“We found that people resort to ride the buses to make money because they are down on their luck, unemployed and have time to kill,” Assad said. “But the venom seen in the comments section of (our) online story shows this has not changed some people’s opinions.

At first glance, it seems the bus riders are the main players in the game, cashing in on the play-card jackpot, but the pay-out also benefits the casino.

“The parent company of the Sands is the biggest gaming company in the world,” Assad said. “Some of those buses bring in big players who play with five figures.

“More than 3,000 people were coming on these buses every day,” he said. “The Sands knows how to make money; that is why their table revenue per month is 15 million.”

Although the Morning Call published its two-day series in April, the Sands Casino, which is up for sale, remains silent and has not issued a response, Assad said. The Sands, however, did ban the use of the play-cards in certain machines the day after the series broke.

The journalists’ NCC presentation, titled “Riding to Live,” was sponsored by NCC’s journalism program.