Modern Asian identity shaped in karaoke rooms (partly)

Source:Global Times Published: 2010-4-25 21:09:44

By Nicole Nieraad-Schalke

"Oh no, 4 hours are enough! Please, let's go home," I beg. But my Chinese friends, without even listening to me, enthusiastically keep on singing.

Where does the Asian desire to spend half their life in karaoke bars (in Japan), KTV (in China), or noraebang (in South Korea), come from?

Karaoke is one aspect of pop culture where the trend is not set by the US or Europe. Originating in Japan in the early 1970s, it has exploded into a regional craze, and even enjoyed a brief spate of popularity in the West.

It ranges from grimy establishments complete with hookers to Christian revival karaoke in the Bible Belt and Buddhist karaoke in Cambodia.

Commonly associated with desperately bad singers and slurring drunks in Irish pubs, karaoke in Europe, Australia and the US has never really had positive image.

Bars, clubs or restaurants sometimes provide karaoke equipment to allow people sing publicly, maybe even on a small stage.

Main part of the thrill for Australians, Europeans and Americans is in taking the centre stage. In the Western world, karaoke is an individualistic competition that fits a mostly self-centered culture.

Taking part in a karaoke talent show fulfills the American dream of becoming a star, if only for two minutes and with a lot of help from electronics.

Even the extremely popular games "SingStar" and "Karaoke Revolution" for home consoles like the Playstation, Wii and Xbox judge the singers according to their tone pitches and lengths.

However, after joining countless karaoke sessions in China and South Korea with Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and Indonesians, I get the impression that Asian karaoke is so much more.

While at night Western people tend to settle in pubs, cinemas or clubs, Asians enthusiastically head for karaoke bars that can be found at every corner. There are more than 22,000 just in Shanghai.

To me it seems like they never get bored, even if they have to listen to their friend singing her favorite song for the 30th time.

Karaoke has really touched Asian pop culture because many popular singers create special karaoke versions of their songs.

It also doesn't surprise that China holds the record for the longest karaoke marathon by multiple participants: 456 hours 2 minutes 5 seconds. Neither your age, your appearance nor your income matters if you just sing. But of course, most voices are beautiful and clear, due to all these years of training.

Maybe the biggest difference from Western karaoke is that these meetings are not only able to create entertainment, but a harmonious community as well. The amateur singers do not perform on a stage in front of strangers, but in a very intimate atmosphere, in small or medium-sized rooms, called "karaoke boxes."


In my experience, Asians also tend to sing national songs and prefer emotional ballads.

It is common to spend the evening with colleagues, alcohol and karaoke to bond the relations within the company or department.

In Germany, where boundaries between work and private life are very strict, no business man would feel comfortable tipsily performing Tom Jones' Sex Bomb in front of his boss.

I certainly can't imagine anybody celebrating their mother's birthday or their cousin's wedding day at a karaoke bar, but this is pretty common in Asia.

Karaoke in Asia plays a much bigger role in everyday culture than it does in the Western world, and is becoming an important part of Asian identity. Some might even call it an obsession.

Violent reactions to karaoke singing have made a lot of headlines in South East Asia.

In the past two years, a Malaysian man was fatally stabbed for hogging the microphone and a Thai man killed eight of his neighbors in a rage after they sang Take me home, country roads. Frank Sinatra's My way has even been banned from many bars across the Philippines after at least six people were killed in the last decade while performing karaoke renditions of the song.

To me that sounds like more than just a hobby.

The author is a Nanjing-based German cultural scientist.

Posted in: Viewpoint

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