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Karaoke

On Sunday I had my first experience of Hong Kong karaoke. Held at the evocatively named !Bridal House Tea Room Hotel in Yai Ma Tei. After hunting around for awhile I was guided up a small flight of stairs and entered a narrow room. On my right was a long table displaying an extensive assortment of raw meats and on my left an open BBQ fire on which to cook it. Another first, I found a lethal looking BBQ fork and spent the next five minutes trying to skewer a hunk of chicken on the end. I only dropped it on the floor once and considered that, as I was about to stick it in an open fire, any bugs it may have collected would soon be dealt with.

Next to the fire to turn the ugly lump of flesh on the end of my fork into something edible. But I am in a small room with about 50 other people, each brandishing a sharp, 80cm weapon. South American Indians coat the tips of their weapons with curare to ensure their wounded prey do not escape, these weapons were tipped with raw flesh harbouring untold numbers of bacteria. I managed to find a spot, or at least my sympathetic fellow guests offered me a seat close the BBQ from where I could start cooking my hunk of meat. People came and went but I sat there with my fork in the fire still clutching a piece of apparently raw meat. I was given helpful advice; your meat is too close to the fire, you need to hold it higher; your meat is too far from the fire, you need to hold it closer; and there was the polite derision at my incompetence in skewering the beast which was considered a major factor in it failing to cook.

As i continued to sit there a woman who was clearly used to feeding the poor donated a piece of lamb that she cooked earlier and assured me that she had enough. If a Hong Kong Chinese person says they have had enough they are lying. The capacity for continually eating yet not putting on an ounce of weight is uncanny. I had had enough by now and I withdrew my chicken announcing that I was off to eat it. "Not a good idea," said one, "that bit's still raw." Hmmmm, eventually I had held it in the fire long enough to cook a bison and I headed for a table with my chicken, the donated lamb and another piece of donated pork which gave me at least half a dozen mouthfuls of relatively tasty food but having a virtually vegetarian diet the rest of the time this glut of meat was not particularly attractive. My cooking failure was made all the more apparent as plate after plate of well cooked meat landed on the table I shared with at least another ten people, each plateful greeted by cheers and applause although, thankfully, not with the usual flurry of photographs one comes to expect when eating out in HK.

Having eaten my fill of dead animals I headed upstairs to see what was happening in the karaoke room. Many westerners think of karaoke is being a bizarre oriental ritual and there is some truth in this. There were about ten people in the room, which had a few tables, chairs, a big TV screen and speakers. Songs came up on the screen, all Cantonese and with the lyrics coming up on the screen in Chinese characters. My ability to read Chinese characters is limited to spotting one or two characters on each screen which I think I know but by the time I have worked out what they are we are onto the next line of the song. This, of course, is a blessing as it meant that no one was going to be able get me to sing that night. Without electronic gadgetry my singing is best confined to a vacuum chamber and even with electronic gadgetry I am no Justin Bieber but, as it turned out, no one could sing. No one could sing in tune, nor in time. What could be worse than one person singing out of tune than two people trying to sing a duet, each in their own out of tune. At times the noise was painful to listen to, not in terms of decibels but in terms of finger nails on blackboards. How can this be entertainment?

But then a song I actually recognised started, so it would be safe to assume this song was much older than the others, in Mandarin rather than Cantonese. A striking looking young woman picked up a microphone. She was tall, slim and elegant and then she started to sing. And could she sing! Pitch perfect, timing impeccable, vocal range impressive, breath control, volume, tone, emotion, this woman had it all. Everyone stopped chatting and listened. This was not what they were used to hearing. And then a message came upstairs that another calf had been slaughtered or there was a group photo or something, I didn't quite catch what was said but the room emptied. So there was wonderful singer left alone in the room. Fortunately, whatever had caused the flock to scatter was soon sorted and the room began to fill up again. As the young woman finished she put down the microphone and sat down to some warm applause.

She sang a couple more before putting down the microphone and returning to her table to a polite round of applause and some encouraging words. At this point I would have assumed that others would have felt a little shy about stepping up to the microphone again but not a bit of it. The duets continued with moments when I thought that a cat impaled on my BBQ fork and toasted on the fire downstairs might have made a similar noise. I am sure none of these people had any illusions that they could sing and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves but can people really enjoy listening to this?

So why has karaoke managed to remain a popular pastime for so long? It was not until this evening I realised that people do not go to karaoke to listen to other people sing. When you sing you are not trying to entertain other people you are trying to enjoy yourself, you are there to have fun and everyone did. If you can't sing it doesn't matter as no one is really listening so no one is embarrassed. Now it makes sense.

Even the strange BBQ practices started to make sense. In NZ a BBQ consists of a large man wearing an apron and a lot of tattoos slaving over the BBQ which could range from a simple griddle to something the size of Jamie Oliver's kitchen who would grill half a yak while drinking copious quantities of Speights, Tui or some other NZ beer, while the guests sit around drinking copious quantities of Speights, Tui or bottles of NZ wine and chatting with friends. In HK the process of cooking on the BBQ is a social event, it's part of the entertainment. And therein lies another difference at the HK BBQ. I was there for about 3 and a half hours and in all that time not one drop of alcohol was consumed and yet everyone clearly had a great time. Many westerners might wonder how this is possible but I can assure you it is.