The World of Chinese Cup was an English writing competition held by The World of Chinese magazine from October 2018 to June 2019. We received over 200 entries from writers of all ages, representing seven different countries. The winning essay by Emily Lin-Jones of the USA is reprinted below, answering the prompt “A friend visits from abroad and asks to see the ‘real China’; where do you take them?”
Years before I traveled to China for the first time, a friend told me about a female colleague of hers who, following a divorce, went to sing karaoke for seven hours straight.
She belted ballads in the darkened room and poured out everything—the years of built-up resentment, the sadness and rage. Karaoke was the only form of release she had then, and it really helped her cope with her feelings, or so my friend solemnly insisted.
At the time I was pretty skeptical of the concept of karaoke in general, and even more its potential therapeutic value. Now, having been to China to experience the phenomenon myself, I am not a skeptic anymore.
Since its invention by a Japanese musician in the 1970s, the karaoke machine has long been a beloved fixture throughout Asia. More popularly known as KTV, karaoke parlors are easily the most ubiquitous form of nightlife across China. Even the most backwoods town is practically guaranteed to have at least one KTV, often open around the clock.
Some franchises are upscale, some are seedy, but on the inside each one is essentially the same: a honeycomb of windowless rooms, sound systems cranked to irresponsible levels, and machines loaded with pop anthems and bootleg music videos.
Many Westerners think of karaoke primarily as a semi-public performance, something you do (or are pushed to do) at the front of the bar after a drink or three. In China, however, the experience is typically a bit more intimate. Groups rent private rooms, which may hold as few as three or four people.
The point of KTV, as at a karaoke bar, is to show off, but not too much, lest one be deemed a “mic tyrant (麦霸, màibà).” Everyone is encouraged to pick a song, but it is equally acceptable for their non-singers to sit back and cheer on their friends. Alcohol may or may not be involved. It’s not always innocent—KTV still has a reputation as the favorite pastime of debauched businessmen—but in my experience, it’s usually pretty tame.
I have sung with strangers, friends, and with people who have become almost like my family. I have eaten a full meal, six dishes with rice and soup, in the blaring darkness of a KTV room. At its best, there’s something oddly soothing about the gaudy ambience, like stepping into a pocket dimension where time passes differently. Friends have told me about bringing books to study for exams, spending the night stretched out on the faux-leather couches while their classmates sang until dawn.
There aren’t very many places one can visit in the course of a single evening that would help in understanding the vast complexity of modern China. But I would unhesitatingly recommend KTV to anyone visiting, whether you like singing in front of an audience or not. In the face of China’s ever more obvious social inequalities and urban-rural divide, KTV continues to have a near-universal appeal. Almost everyone I met in China, from factory workers to university students, seemed to have spent at least some time crooning into a microphone.
Over the course of many KTV outings, I have been struck by the incredible care with which my Chinese friends select and perform their songs—without a trace of irony in the performance. Hitting the soaring high notes of a Tibetan folk-pop ballad, rapping along with a contestant from a hip hop TV show, the person I thought I knew seems suddenly transformed. It may be nothing more than the secret joy of having a captive audience, or the cathartic release of pressures accumulated in daily life. Whatever it is, it’s something to witness, and I have never passed up the chance to do so.
“Meet Me at KTV” is a story from our issue, “Alpine Ambitions”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.