By Yen Chu
A young man wearing glasses is loudly crooning a Cantonese pop song into a hand-held microphone. He drowns out his friend who is singing along with him by screeching out his lyrics At times, the sound he makes reminds me of squealing tires. No one in the audience boos or laughs at him. They are too busy drinking or conversing to notice.
When the duo are finished, they casually walk away from the karaoke machine.
It’s Saturday night at Purple Rain, a restaurant and karaoke bar in Markham. Like most Saturday nights, all four private karaoke rooms, ranging from $120 to $150, are booked.
Out in the main room, the place is packed with Chinese youths. The dark lounge is decorated with speckled grey and purple armchairs, grey carpet and lacquered tables. Two TV monitors, each showing a Chinese male singer, hang on opposite ends of the room. At the back, there are four TV monitors hanging over the bar and the DJ’s box.
The name of the bar is set in purple letters in the left corner of the room, illuminated by the tiny soft blue spotlights.
As he strides confidently towards the karaoke machine, Ken Szeto’s face seems to glow under the lights which are now on him.
During the week, Ken is a busy second-year industrial engineering student at Ryerson. But on the weekend, unknown to his classmates, he transforms into the king of karaoke.
Well, at least to his friends.
At first, Ken’s voice is cautious, careful not to miss any of the Cantonese lyrics flashing across the TV monitor in front of him. The song he has selected is by Jackie Cheung. The lyrics, as melancholic as the melody, tell the listener going through love’s ups and downs, not to give up. The video accompanying his song shows a panoramic view of a beach with a couple strolling along holding hands.
Again, the audience is indifferent to the singer in the spotlight, but when he’s done his song, Ken’s friends cheer and applaud.
This is my first time at a karaoke bar. Although I am a Chinese-Canadian, I don’t hang out with others who are Chinese. I’ve never really given much thought to what Chinese people my age do on the weekends. But I quickly found that despite the stereotypes, they aren’t perpetually studying or doing homework. To my surprise, many enjoy singing away their weekends.
I’m sitting at table 43 with Ken’s friends, Gloria Mak and Whitney Chu. It’s an interesting experience—watching young people sing in public and not think it’s tremendously funny.
Eventually, Ken’s friends turn to me and ask if I want to go up and sing too. A pang of fear and anxiety hits me as I think, “Me, sing in front of all these people? Are you nuts?”
Maybe later, I tell them.
Ken usually goes to karaoke bars with his Chinese friends. He says his non-Asian friends don’t understand his attraction to karaoke.
“They wonder why I would want to go out and sing,” he says. “It’s a cultural thing. For me it’s like drama, it’s an act of performing. It allows you to let everything out.”
Originating in Japan in the late ‘80s, karaoke bars quickly spread to other Asian countries where it became wildly popular. Eventually, when karaoke fever hit North America, Canadian bars and restaurants started holding karaoke nights, but the karaoke craze never caught on with mainstream Canadians. Instead, karaoke has been relegated to the annals of bad taste by most North Americans.
Meanwhile, in the Chinese community, karaoke moved beyond being the newest technological fad to become part of the culture. In Asia, many families have a karaoke machine next to the VCR. And now, in Toronto, with the massive increase in Hong Kong immigrants, karaoke businesses have been popping up all over the GTA.
Because many Hong Kong immigrants don’t feel they belong in the typical “Canadian” bars and nightclubs, a karaoke bar is a place where they can be comfortable.
“They have no place to go,” says Andy Lee, manager of Take-One Studios in Richmond Hill. “Karaoke allows them to come together and meet for the night.”
Raymond Hui, a first-year computer science student at Ryerson agrees.
“I feel more comfortable in karaoke bars because I fit in with more Chinese people.”
While Take-One Studios caters specifically to Hong Kong immigrants, Purple Rain has a slightly more diverse clientele. Their customers include Canadian-born Chinese(CBCs) who don’t speak Cantonese, Filipinos and a few non-Asians.
Three years ago, Purple Rain, like Take-One Studios had mostly Hong Kong immigrant customers. But when three new karaoke bars opened in the area, they started losing their customers.
They responded by hiring people who weren’t Chinese and advertising outside the Chinese community.
“When we brought in the English-speaking customers, we risked scaring away our Chinese customers,” says manager of Purple Rain, Bernie Valado. “Some people from Hong Kong aren’t comfortable with English and they want to be where the waiters and staff speak Chinese.”
But this isn’t the case with Ken and his friend Whitney, a first-year life-science student at the University of Toronto. They both came from Hong Kong nine years ago. Although they speak perfect English, they prefer singing and listening to Cantonese pop music.
Whitney says she grew up with Cantonese pop and prefers it to North American pop. “If you listen to R&B, and someone tells you to listen to techno, you’ll try it. But then you’ll go back to listening to R&B. That’s like English and Chinese. You go back to what you are used to. I’m just comfortable with what I’m more familiar with.
I can see how karaoke bars may seem indicative of how insular the Chinese community is — how they “all stick together.” But I wonder why , when a bunch of white kids are hanging out, no one wonders why “all white people” stick together.
Karaoke bars are the only place where Chinese-Canadians have the opportunity to listen to Cantonese pop outside of their home. Canto-pop, as it’s often called, is characterized by love ballads that are heavily influenced by American pop, with many singers doing covers of Toni Braxton and Mariah Carey.
It is also a multi-billion dollar industry in Hong Kong and the Chinese diaspora.
With their selection of more than 300 Canto-pop tunes, karaoke bars are the place for these singers to release new singles for maximum exposure.
Casey Lum is the author of In Search of a Voice: Karaoke and the Construction of Identity in Chinese America. He has a theory about why karaoke is so popular in Chinese communities.
“In general terms, Asian cultures tend to be group oriented,” says Lum, a telecommunication and media studies professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey. “Asians are very conscious that they have support from the group. The act of going up to the stage is act of good faith.”
He adds, “Going up to sing is not entirely viewed as an individual way of showing off. It is viewed as a way to entertain the group.”
He also explains in his book that North Americans don’t like “to be singled out, deprivatized, and to become social and communal in public spaces.”
While I am Chinese, my behavior, according to Lum’s book, is typically “North American.” By the end of the night, I still hadn’t gone up to sing. Afterwards, I felt bad I was being a poor sport, but Kend and his friends did their best to assure me I wasn’t. I guess, for some, the karaoke spotlight is just too bright.