Thursday, July 10, 2008


Many Chinese people enjoy karaoke, called KTV here. There are karaoke places all over town, chains or independent locations, where people go with colleagues, family and friends. The experience is different than in the U.S. Here you aren't in a large room for everyone in the place to watch, laugh and point as you publicly humiliate yourself. No. Instead, you are taken to a small room, the size dependent on the number of people in your party, with sofas, tables, a large screen in the front of the room, menus filled with many food and drink options, and a computer screen from which you can peruse the extensive library of song options. Some places have panels in each of the walls of the rooms with buttons to raise or lower the volume, skip a song, or call our waiter or room attendant.

The group I was with was made up of some Chinese-Americans here on business, some of their local Beijing colleagues and another local friend; she and I had both been introduced to one the visitors by a former classmate of his, an Italian friend who is out of town this month. I was the only non-Chinese and non-native Chinese speaker. Putonghua was the main language for the evening, though some of the Chinese-Americans switched between Mandarin and Cantonese.

After our group of nine was shown to a small room and settled in (we were given tokens, similar to gambling chips at a casino but round with the thickness of a Fender guitar pick, which we could exchange for food and beverages; my understanding is that the number of tokens we received was based on the room type and the length of time we'd be there) we ordered drinks (Tsingtao beer, soda and water) from our waiter, and people crowded around the computer to choose songs. At first I didn't see any in English, but that was because you needed to be able to page through the menu and read enough Chinese to find the English songs. At a later point in the evening a friend found them for me, after one of the men kept taunting me that "you aren't really Chinese until you've sung KTV." Most of the English songs were from modern artists whose music I don't know well (Britney, Ashlee Simpson, Boyz2Men, Linkin Park, Celine Dion) but I did eventually find two songs I thought I'd be able to sing.

As each Chinese song came up there were shouts, hoots and hollers as people jockeyed for the microphones. They were good. I felt like I was the only one in the room who didn't know all of the songs. As I watched the characters float along the bottom of the screen I was excited if there were any that I could read ('bu,' 'shuai,' 'zi' and 'yi' were all used repeatedly). Some songs had repetitious choruses that I was able to mimic, though i had to ask friends to explain what the songs were about. Most of them were sad and somewhat sappy ballads but there was one fun song about a crazy kid that had a good beat, a fun video and a significant amount of repetition. One of my new friends said she's going to look into getting me a CD of some of the songs so that I can learn the lyrics and be able to sing along better on our next outing.

When my two songs came up I quickly learned that karaoke labels cannot be trusted: the song listing may have said that "Paint It Black" was by the Rolling Stones and "Whenever, Wherever" was by Shakira but the videos showed Chinese singers performing them and the lyrics written on the screen did not match the lyrics in the versions I usually hear. I tried to follow along but it was a stretch.

Some Chinese songs had two sets of lyrics, one set written in blue and another in pink. I asked if one was for a woman and the other a man. No. One was for Mandarin and the other for Cantonese. Um, aren't both languages written with the same set of characters? Yes. But sometimes the song doesn't sound as good in the other language with the original lyrics so they are changed to fit the language and the music. That's something I could only learn in a karaoke booth filled with Chinese friends.

Another noteworthy observation was that some of the characters shown looked different, more detailed, than most of the characters I'm used to seeing. Many of the karaoke videos are produced in Taiwan, where traditional Chinese characters are still in use. In the 1950s the government created a set of simplified characters, made by decreasing the number of strokes and simplifying the characters, in an effort to increase literacy. Taiwan, Hong Kong, and many other overseas Chinese communities still use the traditional forms. This meant that the foreigners in my group could read the characters on the screen but one of the locals couldn't.

Later in the evening some of our group went off to order more refreshments. The waiter soon came by with trays filled with more Tsingtao, glasses of fresh watermelon juice and lemonade, and bowls of noodles for a few in the group who were feeling peckish. The watermelon juice tasted fresh. It was good.

At one point I saw two of the men in a corner, shouting in fun and saying things I couldn't understand and pushing their hands in front of them while changing the number of fingers shown. It looked similar to Rock, Paper, Scissors. I leaned over and asked my neighbor for an explanation. It's a drinking game. One guy yelled a number (zero, five, ten, fifteen or twenty) and both splayed their fingers to indicate a quantity. If the total number of fingers shown equaled the amount shouted then the point went to the challenger. If they didn't then the point went to the leader. Two lost rounds in a row meant you had to drink. I should be able to follow that so I listened closer. Nope, I didn't understand. I turned to my neighbor with a look of confusion on my face. The guys were playing in Cantonese. Oh.

The experience was I'll be doing it again. In the meantime I need to practice, so does anyone know where I can go to download some Chinese karaoke videos, preferably with pinyin below the characters and a soundtrack with vocals?

No comments: