The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is really, really big. The second-largest country in the world by land area, the PRC covers some 3.7 million square miles. It’s also the most populous nation, housing an estimated 1.38 billion people as of 2016. The largest cities in China are also ginormous; for example, Shanghai boasts a population of approximately 22 million, while the capital city of Beijing is not far behind at roughly 19 million. Overall, no fewer than 14 Chinese cities count populations north of 5 million. (Note: various websites provide widely divergent population totals for these municipalities, depending on how such terms as “city” and “urban area” are defined.) But although you’d expect those sprawling metropolises to offer a plethora of entertainment options, one diversion that’s common around much of the globe is missing from China’s megacities. Specifically, just try to find a karaoke bar in the PRC where you can sing in public. In my experience, it can’t be done.
Believe me, I tried. But in the PRC, karaoke seems to consist exclusively of the “private room” establishments so popular in eastern Asia where patrons rent individual rooms in which to sing with their friends or business associates. In China, such venues are known as “KTV” joints. Now, in China this past spring, as is the case with most of my international journeys, I was travelling solo. For that and other reasons, KTV-type establishments are normally a non-starter for me. I mean, singing by (and to) myself in a closed room is not my idea of fun times. Yet during my travels in China, every single karaoke venue that I, or my hotel concierges, was able to find was a KTV club — even in the vast megalopolises of Shanghai and Beijing. (I also failed to find a bar or restaurant with public karaoke in the other Chinese city that I visited, Xi’an, whose inhabitants number just under 9 million. It’s possible that a Western-style bar with public karaoke might exist in one of the many other large cities that dot the PRC, but the absence of such a place in either of the PRC’s two biggest cities is glaring, and isn’t a good sign.) So what was I to do?
If I did manage to karaoke in mainland China,the tally of countries in which I’ve performed didn’t stand to increase. China had already been added to my World Karaoke Tour way back in December 2009, when I sang in the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau. In those territories, in contrast to what I was presently discovering in mainland China, public karaoke not only existed, but was abundant. Well, at least that was the case seven years ago. (Incidentally, my singing appearances in Hong Kong and Macau took place nearly two years before I started this blog, and an even greater length of time before I began making videos of my karaoke performances. Thus, I have no documentary evidence of those evenings, which at the time made the PRC the 15th country in which I’d sung. So you’ll just have to take my word for it. 🙂 ) Anyway, I wanted very badly to sing in mainland China — partly so that I could colour in a large landmass on the map of countries in which I’ve sung. 🙂 (Another geographic note: mainland China is defined as that portion of the PRC which excludes Hong Kong and Macau, but includes Hainan, an archipelagic province in the South China Sea that’s just to the south of the continental portion of the PRC.)
Additional background information that’s relevant to how I ultimately resolved my dilemma: When I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia in January 2015, I had encountered a similar situation with regard to karaoke. In Siem Reap, I only found karaoke facilities with private rooms, and as a result I reluctantly forewent the opportunity to sing in Cambodia. That country remains one of five United Nations members to which I have travelled without singing inside their borders. Later I vowed that if ever again I found myself in similar circumstances (in other words, a scenario in which my only chance to sing in a particular country involved going to a venue that only had private rooms), I would crash a random group’s karaoke gathering in one of those private rooms. In that way, I would prevent other countries from slipping away from my World Karaoke Tour.
In essence, I kept that vow in mainland China — specifically, in Beijing — as my time there was drawing to a close. Well, I didn’t quite barge in on anyone, Bill Murray-style; I was more polite than that. Here’s how it went down:
Crashing a karaoke party, with permission
Before leaving my hotel, I had the concierge write down the following script in Mandarin Chinese on a sheet of paper: “I love karaoke. I’m travelling alone. May I join you?” Upon arriving at the KTV club (the identity of which I regrettably neglected to record), I showed my written query to various assemblages of people in the lobby area. I was extremely nervous asking random persons to sing with me, and the first three groups of people I asked said no; but I didn’t give up! Failure wasn’t an option, because if I didn’t convince some contingent to take me in on this evening, any possibility of my singing in mainland China would evaporate. My persistence was rewarded when finally I found a trio of guys that was enthusiastic about my joining them! I would have an audience after all.
Once we entered the private room, choosing my songs proved much more difficult than usual. The available English-language material was quite limited, and consisted mostly of recent releases with which I was unfamiliar. For my opening number, from among the few viable options (i.e., songs that I actually knew and were within my vocal range), I chose “New York State of Mind.” Billy Joel’s original version of that song has long held a place on my karaoke A-list; but that wasn’t what I was about to sing here. They didn’t have that version. I had to settle for the cover of “New York State of Mind” from the American television series Glee. Anyway, here it is:
My second song was one of the all-time greatest releases from a boy band: “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys. I loved how my Chinese companions totally knew the song and were singing along throughout:
And that is how, on Friday, June 3, 2016, mainland China got added to my World Karaoke Tour.
Due principally to the language barrier, I didn’t engage in much conversation with the Beijingers with whom I was sharing a KTV room. I didn’t even get their names, so I can remember them only as three locals who showed great hospitality and generosity to a stranger. My friends-for-a-night were also incredibly nice to me; they offered me food and beer that they had brought into the room with them, and when I decided to call it a night, one of them even accompanied me to the street to make sure that I procured a taxi back to my hotel. Among many positive messages from that night is a reminder of my frequent observation that people the world over are fundamentally decent and kind.
The next day I flew to North Korea, which became the 42nd country in which I’ve karaoked. In late November 2016, Hungary became the 43rd; and a write-up of that experience will be coming in early 2017. But presently, I’m preparing to leave on Friday for a trip that will take me to Israel, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates! There will be no shortage of bucket list items on the agenda during that epic adventure. From ancient sites in Jerusalem, to the iconic Treasury at Petra, to the tallest building in the world (the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which rises to the astonishing height of 2,722 feet), I’ll be seeing a plethora of amazing stuff. Equally important, if all goes well, I’ll be adding four new countries to my World Karaoke Tour!