01/29/2003 1:00AM

Chinese New Year fills up town

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There once was an episode of "The Simpsons" in which Homer and Marge went to a theme park restaurant where they counted down to New Year's every hour on the hour. Las Vegas feels like that sometimes because there's always another party, another celebration right around the corner.

It seems like just a month ago, in fact it was a month ago, that we were celebrating New Year's Eve with 270,000 party crashers from out of town. Well, get the noisemakers and fireworks ready again because the city's 127,000 hotel rooms will be full again as we ring in the Chinese New Year at midnight on Friday.

The Chinese New Year, the Year of the Ram (or Black Sheep, depending on the source), begins Saturday and is actually a two-week celebration. And even though there is much more publicity given to the Jan. 1 holiday, the Chinese New Year is just as important to the hotels. New Year's on the Roman calendar brings in a lot of people who are looking to party, but not necessarily to gamble a lot, whereas the Asian market is where the majority of high rollers come from, so it can lead to far more profits on the casino side.

It's traditional for Chinese people to gamble on New Year's, feeling if they win, it will be a lucky year (kind of a gambler's version of Groundhog Day, which also just so happens to be Sunday). With that in mind, for the past 20 years, Las Vegas has sent marketing directors and casino hosts to the Pacific Rim to convince the locals that Las Vegas is the perfect place to celebrate.

Welcome signs were already going up early in the week. On the Campanile Tower at The Venetian, a huge red banner with Chinese characters in big black lettering greets visitors with messages of "prosperous business, meticulous spirit, great fortune, dreams come true, good luck, fortune flows in, trouble free life, peaceful mind, family safe and sound and elevated status." Down the Strip, the Bellagio conservatory and botanical gardens has a Chinese garden theme, complete with good luck symbols from the Orient.

Casinos will also be customizing menus at their restaurants and booking entertainment for their foreign visitors. The MGM Grand, one of the leaders in catering to the Asian high-roller market, will host a show called "Year of the Ram - Chinese New Year" in its Grand Garden Arena at 8 p.m. Saturday. Performers will include Do Do Cheng, Sun Nan, Stella Chang, William Su, and Cecilia Pak Chi and the show will be performed in Mandarin and Cantonese.

One of my favorite Vegas stories is the one about the MGM Grand's original entrance. It was a huge plaster lion head with its wide-open mouth serving as the doorway. However, Asian gamblers complained, saying it was bad luck to enter the lion's mouth and started staying away from the casino. The customer (especially with lots of money) is always right, so the MGM Grand tore down the entrance, moved it to the side of the property, and now has a much classier-looking 45-foot-tall lion out front that is the second-largest bronze statue in the world. The biggest? It's a Buddha in Hong Kong that is 90-feet tall.

And when the Chinese New Year celebration is done in two weeks, it will be time for the Valentine's/President's Day weekend celebration here in Vegas.

New Station on Rancho Drive

On Monday, Station Casinos took over the Wildfire Casino on Rancho Drive in North Las Vegas. The sports book (the Wildfire doesn't take racing) is now a satellite of Station Casinos.

The bad news is it is one fewer place to shop for the best odds. The good news is that if you're looking only to run in and make bets on the day's games, the Wildfire is far more convenient to park, run in, make your bets, and run out than at the nearby Texas Station. Of course, you could also drive up the street to the Station-owned Fiesta, which has a drive-up window so you don't even have to leave the car.

Classy casino on the lake to open

With The Cannery lifting its lid in North Las Vegas on Jan. 2, and the Tuscany Suites just east of the Strip opening its 60,000-square-foot casino on Jan. 17, the next casino opening is expected to occur this spring, at the Casino MonteLago in Lake Las Vegas - 30 miles east of the Strip, and part of an upscale development at the Ritz-Carlton Resort.

The casino was licensed last week by the Nevada Gaming Commission. The Hyatt Resort at Lake Las Vegas already has a casino.

Good reason for a name change

Plans are also in the works to reopen the Maxim Hotel on Flamingo Road under another name this summer.

Late last year, William Yung III and Joe Yung, who already owned South Lake Tahoe's Horizon Casino Resort, bought the Maxim for $38 million and are making renovations in hopes of opening the property as the Westin Hotel & Casino. The Maxim closed in November 1999, then reopened as a hotel without a casino in December 1999.

The Maxim is currently in the news because of a murder trial in which a 34-year-old Pennsylvania woman is accused of luring a gambler to her room and allegedly stabbing him to death on April 24, 2001.