China Impressions: The Karaoke Phenomenon

28 Aug

A karaoke room at the posh Shanghai joint

To say karaoke is big in China is to say chopsticks are big in China. Turn nearly any corner in any city and you’ll see a glaring neon “KTV” sign. But karaoke in China is very different than the American “I’m drunk and am gonna sing ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ with my buddies on stage” – it’s a very private affair. You get your own room, equipped with a TV, plush furniture and a high-tech song-selecting system. The place we went to in Chongqing last week even had a tambourine and maracas, and at a posh establishment in Shanghai we had our own butler who refilled our wine and fruit plates and mouthed the words to Lady Gaga when he thought no one was looking.

Last weekend we had lunch with some of Stephen’s old classmates in his hometown of Chongqing. They suggested we go to karaoke afterwards. Karaoke has always been a nighttime two-drink-minimum activity for me, but once we arrived it was clear why we were there in the middle of the afternoon – they were both excellent singers who needed no liquid courage.

Time Out Shanghai wrote that the karaoke singers who get the most attention are the best and the worst – the mediocre singers get the shaft. Unfortunately, I’m one of the latter. It takes me awhile to get the courage to sing. Stephen’s friend had no problem – the minute we arrived in the room, she picked out a song and grabbed the microphone. Then she picked Britney Spears’ “I’m Not a Girl” and thrust the microphone at me. I wasn’t mentally prepared for that, so I politely declined. She then proceeded to do the best Britney impression I’ve ever heard from a Chinese girl.

The problem I have with karaoke is that I’m afraid I won’t be able to hit the notes. Singing is one of those things you need to give 100%. It reminds me of the run-walk we do while crossing the street when the light is about to change. You can’t walk because you’re running out of time, but you don’t want to look stupid doing a full-speed run. So you do a half run, half walk jog and end up looking more stupid than if you just ran. That’s what I end up doing while karaoking – run-walking. I’m afraid to “run” and really belt the song out for fear of sounding out of tune, but I end up sounding out of tune by not stretching for the notes.

Stephen’s friend continued to pick out songs and belt them out like a pro. You could tell she did this a lot. Which brings me to my next topic – karaoke etiquette. What are you supposed to do while a person is singing? Do you give your undivided attention, like you’re at their concert, or do you talk, play with your phone, and eat fruit like the singer isn’t even there? The former seems too formal and puts too much pressure on the singer, but the latter is also awkward, like you’re hanging out with your friends at a coffee shop and one of them just happens to be singing in the corner.

Eventually, after much insisting from Stephen’s friends, I decided to sing a Chinese song. I properly butchered it, not just run-walking with my singing, but my Chinese pronunciation as well. (Wow, the British use of “proper”… yikes!) I then had to redeem myself with “Eternal Flame,” my karaoke standby, which I’ve been singing since I was a baby. The problem with karaoke is that once you start, it’s hard to stop. Once Stephen’s friend got me going, she queued up a bunch of English songs and we sang duets to Maria Carie, Rhianna and Beyonce. I was impressed with her English singing, as well as her knowledge of current music – it seems that bit about the Chinese being 5 to 10 years behind in American music is no longer true. She carried most of the songs, as it’s hard to run-walk your way through “Halo.” Eventually it was time to leave and we practically had to pry the microphone from Stephen’s friend’s hand. I’m sure she’ll be back for more next weekend, but I think I’m OK making karaoke a once or twice a year thing (that is, until I practice and learn to “run.”)


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