In KunmingI want to talk about a big part of Chinese nightlife culture: KTV. The chinese word for Karaoke. These places aren’t bars or a silly thing to do ironically, but a huge business and the place to celebrate any special event like a birthday, graduation or just for fun on a friday night.

Here’s the thing about KTV. It is a totally different experience if you are with Chinese people or westerners. Chinese people take it very seriously. They sing songs individually, and choose a lot more quieter/longer/love song type things in which they can really sing. Westerners tend to choose loud, cheesy pop songs or dance songs so everyone can just scream at the top of their lungs and jump around.

For me, KTV with chinese people is just not as fun. It’s more serious and you end up sitting listening to a lot of terribly cheesy love songs. Going with westerners is just more fun. We all have the same base knowledge of songs, even if we are from different countries or are different ages.

Americans, an Australian, An Indian and a Korean walk into a KTV club...

Americans, an Australian, An Indian and a Korean walk into a KTV club…

So onto the experience. KTV places vary, based on price, but for the most part they are very swanky. Walking into a lobby is like walking to the lobby of a 5 star hotel. Marble pillars, nice lighting, leather couches. They have a check-in counter and plenty of staff to help you. At the nice places having a reservation is also a must. Despite having dozens if not hundreds of rooms (every group gets their own room, you don’t sing in front of strangers) they tend to fill up fast on a friday or saturday night. The price can also vary depending on the quality and the size of the room. A small room for a couple people for 4 hours might set you back a couple hundred rmb (about $20-30) but a big room for a lot of people will probably cost more than $100 dollars.

The lobby

The lobby

As some people deal with checking-in, the other members of the group go to the store. Every KTV has a mini mart filled with one thing: booze. Lots and lots of booze. This is an important ingredient for a successful KTV trip. You don’t have to be drunk to sing KTV, but it certainly helps.

Magic singing juice. The more you drink the better a singer you (think) you are!

KTV magic singing juice. The more you drink the better singer you are!

So, after you check in at the front desk, and choose your liquor, they will lead you to your room. The rooms have as few moving parts as possible. A big long couch lining the back wall, a couple of marble tables, a few TV’s in the front of the room (and one in the back at a classy joint) and one computer. They also have a wall panel in which you can control the temperature, the lighting (you can choose normal lighting, crazy dance lighting–disco ball, flashing lights, etc–or very dark) and the volume.

The fresh pristine room.

At first you are fawned over by the staff. You should have bought your drinks by this point, and they generally don’t let you bring them yourself. Instead they will wheel in a shopping cart and set it all up for you. The bottles of liquor, the mixers, the cups. They will also give you a microphone condom to put on the microphones for sanitary reasons. This is a good idea I think as that thing must be covered in gobs of spit by the nights end.

The pristine mics at night's beginning.

Then you all fight for the computer trying to choose your favorite songs. Since this is China, the touch screen computer is all in Chinese. So then begins the fun of tapping on all the buttons trying to figure out how to work the damn machine. To make it even more confusing sometimes you might have chosen the song titles category, when you are looking for an artist, or vice-versa. They also arrange it by language. One button gives you access to chinese songs, another korean, another english.

So basically you just keep pushing buttons, trying to get to a keypad to find your favorite singer. Even those of us that can speak Chinese find the KTV computer baffling. This goes on all night and yet while no one understands how to work the computer, songs are somehow magically chosen.

Trying to find your favorite song can be a challenge.

Trying to find your favorite song can be a challenge.

Just a word on the song selection. For the most part, they are surprisingly diverse for China. Also, surprisingly modern. Even at the older, smaller KTV’s you can find songs that are popular on the radio now. There are the big wigs, a ton of Madonna, LMFAO and Beatles, but there is also a surprising number of smaller less known hits (internationally I mean). Things like TLC, Bee-Gee’s, R.E.M., and a ton of classic rock.

The songs play in the order that you choose them. The music video starts with the words on the bottom just like any karaoke anywhere. I said that in the classy joints they have a TV in the front and the room and in the back so that people can stand in the front and face the group. Otherwise they have to turn around to see the words and it’s a little awkward.

Also, regarding the videos, I don’t know why, but some songs don’t get the rights or permission to use the real music video so they have some hilarious stock footage instead. The song Barbie Girl has a video of people from the 80‘s at an amusement park for instance. But my all time favorite is pretty much any Beatles song. They made their own videos for it, dressing some look-alike’s like the Beatles. It is sooooooo bad.

The "Beatles"

As everyone’s drinking, and singing, things can tend to get a little crazy. Bottles and glasses get smashed, but the staff checks in regularly (the doors have windows) and they try to keep things clean. They also come in and yell at you if you, say, are dancing on the table, or doing something equally verboten.

Yep, stuff like this can happen.

Yep, stuff like this can happen.

Meanwhile, if you go at night, people in the other rooms are also getting drunker and drunker and going out to find the bathroom can be quite funny. KTV places are just a winding, twisting maze of rooms and it’s near impossible to find your way around. They have workers stationed all over helping you find your way, but of course some calamity ensues; Guys stumbling drunkenly with their girlfriends on their backs, people walking into utility closets thinking it is the bathroom. And more than a few times people have walked into the wrong room by accident. Once me and several of my friends burst into a big room full of Chinese people. To see a bunch of laowai, foreigners, shocked them to say the least. But they graciously gave us some drinks and we stayed for a minute before finding our way back.

You pay in advance, for a certain numbers of hours, and once your time is up the computer locks itself and you cannot choose any more songs. The waiters also come in and start cleaning up. If you STILL don’t get the hint, which happens at times, they turn on the lights and eventually a manger or someone comes in and harasses you until you leave.

When I first came to China I avoided KTV. I thought it was kind of annoying and silly. But you can’t live in China for a long time and avoid KTV, it’s everywhere and so popular, so after being forced to go a few times I learned to love it. I’m not about to go weekly, as some of my Chinese friends do, but it’s a great, fun way to spent an occasional night. If you ever come to China it’s a must-do cultural experience.


Eileen Huang · April 1, 2013 at 12:04 am

I like your guide. 🙂 My husband and I were shocked that, “KTV – a Taiwanese Karaoke branch, mind you,” is all over China. Japanese style Karaoke, you sing in front of EVERYBODY. Though KTVs can now be found world-wide, they are originally a Taiwanese invention. Taking the traditional Japanese karaoke bar idea, the Taiwanese took it a step further. A KTV is a series of small to medium-sized rooms, and so on. It later became a huge hit in Taiwan. They used to be everywhere. I realize many Taiwanese businessmen took their Taiwanese culture in China, especially in Shanghai like “CoCo.”

Becky · April 1, 2013 at 4:15 pm

Actually one of the things I don’t like about KTV is that many of the Chinese songs have traditional characters (which is hard for me to read) for precisely the reason you mentioned. The companies that the videos are made are from Taiwan, where they use traditional. I asked my students about it, and they said it’s not a problem for them because they can still read traditional no problem, but it’s a problem for me! I could try to sing a few more Chinese KTV songs but it’s just to hard, ha ha.

Eileen Huang · April 1, 2013 at 7:20 pm

I understand. I have the opposite problem, I can’t read simplefied especially if it’s too simple. 😀 I REFUSE to write my Chinese name in simplefied. My name needs that heart. Or it would be total and utter meaningless name. :O

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.