One of my favourite weekend activities in China is going to the karaoke. I have always liked singing, just for fun, I don’t have any musical ambitions. But in Spain karaokes are creepy places where old men go to see young girls and you have to wait for everybody to sing before your turn arrives, as it is a big room with just one tv and microphone. And you only get as many songs as drinks you buy!
In China there are two types of karaoke: one is the place feared by all mothers as “the place where businessmen go to have fun with girls who get money for it”. And indeed there still are places like that in China, a country where contracts are signed taking your customer to an expensive restaurant, drinking all kind of hellish liquors and taking them to, ahem, enjoy the local girls. So there are karaokes where one of the extras is having girls joining you in your room, singing with you, serving you drinks and playing dice with you. But this is not the type of karaokes I want to talk about. I want to talk about the innocent karaokes where you can go with your friends to have a good time singing. Chinese people take singing very seriously and lots of them sing beautifully.
Karaokes usually are huge places, normally a whole floor in a building, or maybe even more than one. They are divided in private rooms, ranging from small rooms for 3 or 4 people to party rooms for more than 20 people.
Rooms are paid by the hour and you can also purchase drinks and snacks. In the big karaokes they even have a small supermarket in the entrance area, where you choose what you want to drink and the waiter brings it to your room. Snacks vary from the usual popcorn and peanuts to Chinese delicacies like chicken feet. Fruit platters are also a popular option.
Inside the room you can find a big sofa, a tv screen, a table to put the drinks, two microphones, tambourines and a smaller computer screen where you select the songs. In the coolest karaokes they have standing microphones.
The computer screen to select the songs is in Chinese and it contains songs in Chinese, English, Korean, Japanese and a few songs in other languages. Most of them are in Chinese, of course, but there is also a fair deal of songs in English. You can search for songs according to the artist, the language or looking directly for the title. To do this you have to write the first letter of each word. For example, if you want to sing “Mamma Mia” you have to enter MM and then select the song from the list. It also works to look for the pinyin in Chinese songs.
In the not-so-modern karaokes the computer screen is replaced by several books listing all the available songs. Next to each song there is a code number you have to press in the remote control.
Once you have selected a song it will start playing on the big TV screen. Let’s get this party started!
Apart from singing and drinking you can also play dice games (which are basically drinking games: if you lose you have to drink!). I know one game that consists of trying to guess how many of the same number will be among all the dice (yours and your opponents). This game is very good for practising number gestures, as the music is usually very loud and you can’t hear what the other person is saying.
I have met a lot of Western people who have never been to a karaoke and don’t even want to try. I think it is a pity because it is a great way of mingling with your Chinese friends and collagues, you can have a lot of fun, you can learn Chinese songs and you can even practise characters when you read the song subtitles (which, by the way, are often in Traditional characters as the karaoke software is imported from Taiwan).