A Canadian in Beijing: Food is Free at KTV

I know that I already posted about the inevitability of karaoke here in China. What I haven’t told you about yet is the amazing KTV phenomenon. Here in Beijing, there are several locations of KTV, or “Partyworld” as it’s also called, where people come to sing karaoke as a social activity. I’m not talking about a bar here that has one karaoke machine.

This is a karaoke factory.

It seems like this is one of the most popular activities here. After going out to a bar and drinking several drinks, people often come to KTV and sing all night long. In fact, after midnight, it is significantly cheaper and a person can book a six-hour block from midnight until six a.m. And, many people do.

Not to mention the fact that food is free after midnight.

(Musician Rule #1: Go for the free food!)

These establishments are like giant hotels. At least, that’s what they resemble aesthetically, but the rooms you are renting aren’t for sleeping; they’re for singing. Group after group file into KTV and then disappear into private sound-proofed rooms to hold a microphone in a death grip and belt it out until the wee hours.

You arrive into a marble lobby with plush chairs and staff in uniforms. They usher you upstairs to one of the floors with available rooms (and sometimes they’re all booked up!) and then you are given a private room that consists of several couches, tables, a television (on which the karaoke videos and lyrics are displayed), a closet for your things and sometimes even an adjoining bathroom. Oh, and there are also percussion instruments available just in case you want to bang along. Brightly coloured, they reminded me of kid’s toys and so I bounded over to them and made a racket for a few minutes in the spirit of my inner child.

Each room has a number on the door and a circular window so that the staff can peer in to make sure all is going well and you aren’t in need of any additional beverages. It almost makes me think of a ship, these circular windows, and it made me chuckle quietly to myself whenever a server’s head would pop up in the circular window with curious eyes.

But, last but not least, the number one thing about KTV is the free food after midnight. There is a huge cafeteria-style kitchen area and between midnight and one a.m. (I’m pretty sure it’s an hour long buffet, though it could be two hours?), the food is completely free and there for the taking. So, after the night of partying, this is the place where people come to eat and then continue partying! Alcohol is not free, but non-alcholic drinks are. Both can be delivered right to your room by placing an order with a server.

When I was there, the diversity of the other KTV attendees was astounding. There were groups of young teenagers and groups of businessmen in suits and ties. Everyone looked happy and full of melody. People were singing in the hallways and humming songs as they chose food around the cafeteria. Here, singing is normal and not something just done in the shower or in the shy privacy of one’s home. And singing well is not a prerequisite. On the contrary. I think the appropriate way to sing here is just with enthusiasm… and spirit. Yes, that’s exactly it.

When I walked back to our room with my loaded food tray, I was amused by all the different sounding songs I heard coming from the various rooms. These songs were in what sounded like the insulated distance because of the soundproofing, but outside of each room they could still be heard faintly.

As I was walking slowly along the corridor, one of the doors swung open and another customer exited their room. As the door widened, it was like a vacuum of sound had been released into my ears. I saw inside for that instant and caught sight of a middle-aged man clinging to his microphone with both hands and giving it all he had. He was bent at the knees and his head was thrown back, eyes closed and focused, shirt and tie dishevelled and loosened. He was singing in Chinese and he was pouring his heart into the words. When the door swung shut once more, the image was gone and the sound was muffled again. It was just a flash but this visual will stay with me and will forever be associated with the three letters: KTV.

It was his big moment. . .

I smiled and continued down to the hall to our room and my group of friends. When I came in, two of them were in the midst of a cheesy eighties duet and singing into each other’s eyes. The rest were sprawled on the couches or sitting on stools and watching either the singers or the videos with mild interest.

I say “mild” because these videos are terrible. They’re not the original videos, of course, and sometimes the cinematography is atrocious. Especially for the English songs, they are really outdated images showing non-Asian people dressed in eighties or early nineties fashions parading across the screen. The transcription of the lyrics, too, is often wrong. Sometimes it’s so wrong that it’s hilarious, rendering us unable to sing anymore because we are laughing so hard.

What a crazy experience.

Here is a place where people can pretend they’re performing for thousands of people in the way they deliver the lyrics and pose with the microphone, but it’s just your group of friends or family looking on as though this is normal. And, after a few moments, it is normal. Anything is normal if you let it normalize, right?! In the end, there is really no performance going on at all. It’s just about singing. It’s therapeutic. It’s cathartic.

It’s the release.

The eating, drinking and socializing is a sidebar. In fact, some of my friends like to sing for six hours straight and never get tired.

That’s not me.

After my food, I was ready for bed. I took my leave after singing a few cheesy tunes like “The Greatest Love of All” and “Somewhere Out There” with my friend (it’s a duet, of course!) The English language selection is wide but super cheesy. Despite being a lover of some cheesy eighties songs (ach-hem… like Air Supply’s entire catalogue, as mentioned), I can only listen for so long before I’m ready to move on.

I left humming a tune, of course. I’m not sure which song exactly, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that my vocal chords were being used and celebrated.

I always say that everyone can sing. It’s true. Everyone can.

KTV makes it possible.

And popular.