By Aidan Jones
HONG KONG, February 25, 2011 (AFP) – It’s been a way to unwind and get a deal done in Asia for over 40 years; crooning like Sinatra, camping it up like Abba or rocking like Elvis, often to a room full of stone-faced men in suits.
Karaoke is big business. And business is booming to the sound of singing. Some good, most bad.
Karen Ho is on fire at the mic at a Hong Kong bar. Eyes locked on the chintzy music video and hands clasped around a microphone, her voice reaches for the top notes with the fierce conviction of a jilted lover.
Just as it can’t get any louder her friends Nora Chung and Soham Lee join the chorus, filling the room with anguished voices, all equally laden with emotion. None quite singing the same note.
Nevertheless, for one delicious moment they are all Kay Tse – the Cantopop Queen whose lovelorn ballad blares on the giant television screen ahead of them.
Gathered at Red MR, the latest addition to the city’s congested karaoke scene, the trio are among the estimated 600,000 people aged 16 to 34 who are not embarrassed about singing in public at least once a month.
Research firm Synovate Media Atlas says karaoke is worth an estimated $155 million a year in the city.
Keen for its share, BMA Investment is hoping its ten new upscale sites will lure punters tired of the no-frills karaoke boxes – multi-roomed premises – that dominate the market.
Red MR are taking karaoke into the future, says Canny Leung, BMA’s executive director, with glitzy 31-room establishments complete with multimedia gizmos, including touchscreen tables to order food and drinks.
“I’m confident we will do well,” says Leung. “This is a city that loves to sing.”
More than four decades since its invention in Japan, karaoke – a Japanese phrase meaning ‘empty orchestra’ – remains Asia’s most treasured pastime.
“Hong Kong is so busy, it’s a little crazy,” says media worker Ho. “Karaoke is my way of releasing the pressure.
“When I’m here I forget about the stress of life,” explains her friend Nora Chung. “Chinese people can be very quiet and serious but here we express ourselves….we are free.”
Often shy and retiring, people across Asia can be seen suddenly throwing off their chains and belting out a number in front of a room full of people, all waiting their turn. And they’re often completely sober.
Some analysts say there is a deep psychological spur for Asia’s love of public crooning.
“In the west you have psychiatrists but in Asia we don’t believe in Freud, so people never talk about their problems,” says Matthias Woo, whose play ‘Remembrance of Karaoke Past’ showed in Hong Kong in December.
“Karaoke is a way for them to express indirectly their negative feelings and personal issues they cannot talk about.”
But the public singalong can, occasionally, be a risky business.
Several people were killed in the Philippines after performances of Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ angered fellow karaoke goers at different establishments.
The bizarre spate of murders first came to light in 2007 when a 29-year-old singer was shot dead as he belted out the eponymous song, allegedly by the bar’s security guard who was moved to kill the man for his off-key delivery.
The ‘My Way Killings’ led many bars to scratch the Old Blue Eyes’ classic from their playlists.
From Hong Kong’s ‘KBoxes’, to Manila’s videoke street stalls and Seoul’s noraebang (singing rooms), karaoke bars festoon the region’s towns and cities.
They come in many guises – frequently wholesome but sometimes sleazy – and cater for everyone from students to sake-soaked businessmen. Almost half of all Chinese adults partake in karaoke regularly, according to research firm Global Intelligence Alliance.
Perhaps best known as an indelible part of Asian business culture, hard drinking nights in front of the microphone often lubricate deals and build trust across language and cultural barriers.
“In China the relationship with your customer means more than your contract,” says a Hong Kong-based Swiss watch retailer, who declined to be named.
“If you do a deal in Shanghai, Tianjin or Beijing the client always says ‘now we go to karaoke’. You sing, play dice, drink all night. Sometimes ‘hostesses’ are there to look after you and the night goes on and on.
“I always sing Elvis…very badly, but I take it seriously and the Chinese like that. At the end my relationship with them is better and so are my sales.”
Karaoke nights are “compulsory” for doing business in many corners of China, Japan and South Korea, according to Dr Matthew Chew, an expert on Chinese popular culture at Hong Kong Baptist University.
“It’s not just for fun,” he explains. “It’s a chance for people to watch how their business associates behave when they’re drunk. There’s a ritual to everything and it’s all observed.”
From humble beginnings – the first karaoke machine is widely credited to a Japanese musician who failed to patent his device – karaoke has evolved into a serious pursuit.