First introduced to Hong Kong over twenty years ago, karaoke originated in Japan where it literally means “empty orchestra”. Historically, working Japanese males were ashamed of coming home too early because their neighbours would surmise they weren’t important enough to attend social gatherings with their clients after work. It’s interesting that today most people would view that as a stroke of luck. Consequently, however, when low level Japanese employees left the office, they gathered with colleagues and friends in bars. In the 60s - after the inventor of the first karaoke machine supposedly failed to patent his device - this social phenomenon developed into karaoke. It gripped Japan before spreading to Asia and other parts of the world.
When karaoke arrived in Hong Kong it was associated with triads who used karaoke bars as bases for prostitution. Brothels are illegal in Hong Kong but prostitution is not so triads used karaoke outlets as meeting places where men found female ‘companions’. Companions indeed. The girls would then whisk the men off to single unit residences or hourly hotel rooms where they would perform sex services.
Notoriously, in January 1997, members of the Sun Yee On triad firebombed a Kowloon karaoke bar as part of a territorial war against the Wo Shing Wo syndicate. 17 people died in the blaze - the youngest of whom was only 15. The perpetrators fled but one of them, Choi Kam-fai, 34, was found hiding in Shenzhen in 2008. He was sentenced to life imprisonment last year.
The shadow of the mob has slowly dissipated and in the meantime Hong Kongers have taken karaoke to their bosom. According to research by Global Intelligence Alliance, almost half of all Chinese adults in Hong Kong partake in karaoke regularly. From teenagers running off during their lunch break to housewives having a ball during happy hour – it has swept every generation aside. For years companies have used karaoke to help staff members bond, but it’s now reached the stage where regional karaoke contests are organized as a form of cultural exchange between different districts. If Hong Kong karaoke lovers united, you’d be looking at the biggest army in the world.
A key reason for the success of karaoke in Hong Kong is the Tsui Xing Man Fa culture which directly translates as “follow the star”. As a child in England, for instance, you’d typically collect Premier League player stickers but in Hong Kong, celebrity card collecting is the norm. Similarly, the 36 hour wait to buy a ticket to see Andy Lau in concert (above) is testament to the city’s idolisation of stars and you can even make money selling magazine cut-outs of certain celebrities on sites such as Yahoo Auction Hong Kong (the local E-bay).
These observations are all indicative of the quasi-religious fervor surrounding stars in Hong Kong and this celebrity culture goes hand in hand with karaoke. Singing their songs is another way for fans to get closer to their favorite stars. It indulges their passion and is fueled by music agencies and marketeers who connect the image of karaoke bars with the image of their idols, ensuring these two elements of Hong Kong culture are mutually sustaining. In fact, a huge slice of commercially available Cantonese songs are called K-Songs because they fit a certain profile that’s popular in karaoke bars. Typically centring round a piano with strings in the background, a repeating, rising chorus, simple melodies and themes of love: they have become a market in themselves. If only Simon Cowell knew what he was missing.
Circumstantial factors also play a part. Because of the lack of residential space in Hong Kong as well as the intense heat, the option of going to a large, private, air-conditioned room for entertainment has obvious appeal. Meanwhile, another intriguing development is that plenty of karaoke bars now have small rooms for people to work on their vocals by themselves. Karaoke has elements of competition and sport surrounding it – you want to improve – and this component draws people back, week after week.
But perhaps the chief reason why karaoke is so popular in Hong Kong is the sincerity of the participants. In the west, karaoke is seen as something of a joke. A muck around with mates who tend to have drunk too much and end up barking tunelessly down the microphone. In contrast, in Hong Kong it’s perceived as a much needed escape from the daily grind as well as a valuable form of expression.
The Chinese have little time for Freud’s theories of talk as therapy. Instead, karaoke is a much easier way to broach profound and personal subjects ranging from loss to jealousy. For lovers in Hong Kong, nights spent singing together offer some of their fondest memories. Conversely, after a break up, karaoke-goers sing heart-felt serenades of unrequited love. Karaoke in Hong Kong is intimate and personal.
The Chinese aversion to Freud has helped turn karaoke into a means of dialogue, which in its way, has turned karaoke into a multi-billion Hong Kong dollar industry. Combined with Hong Kong’s love of celebrity, Hong Kongers will take the mic over the therapists' sofa any day of the week. So next time you have a problem – why not sing it out?