What is Real Chinese Karaoke
Before I traveled to China, I thought I knew what karaoke was. But I was wrong.
Where I grew up (in the US), karaoke meant a microphone and tiny TV screen tucked into the corner of the bar. You’d choose your song from a 3-ring binder and let whichever employee was unlucky enough to be in charge of karaoke night know what you wanted to sing. Chinese karaoke is on a whole different level.
In China, karaoke is not in the corner it’s the main event. And it’s everywhere. Even medium sized cities will have hundreds of KTV (the Chinese name for karaoke) spots. They range from small one or two person booths at the mall to huge, multi-level palaces with fully furnished VIP rooms. And those little booths? They alone are an estimated $473 million industry.
How Does KTV Work
When you first arrive at the KTV parlor, you’ll be greeted by hosts and hostesses that will take care of your every need. Simply tell them what room your friends have booked (or let them know you need to book a room for X number of people) and let them lead you through the labyrinth of interconnected hallways.
Unlike in the US, KTV happens in private rooms that you book by the hour. There is a lot of variation depending on the style, price, and type of KTV establishment you go to, but the basic setup is the same.
KTV rooms are furnished with comfy furniture, usually a large couch that takes up the width of the room. There will be several controls on the tables and by the doors that allow you to control everything from the volume and room lighting, to calling for the waitstaff. At the front of the room, of course, will be the giant screen where your song selections, with accompanying music videos will show.
Once you’re in the room, it’s probably just best to let your Chinese hosts take the lead, but there are some things you’ll want to keep in mind.
How should you handle yourself during you KTV experience? How can you be polite to your hosts and show them you’re having a good time? Here are some tips:
1. Be Yourself
The first thing you should know about KTV is that it is always very casual.
Whether you’re going with some friends or for a business meeting, you can feel completely comfortable to be yourself and sing badly, no one will judge you for it.
2. Yes, You Have to Sing
Singing used to be a punishment when we were in elementary school, right? Well it doesn’t matter. Whether you’re a great singer or can barely tell the difference between mom and dad on the phone, you’ll be expected to take your turn.
Just choose a song that can be spoken (see some examples below) or one that everyone can sing along with and go early. You don’t want to have to follow the next Whitney Houston.
By the same token, don’t be an attention hog. When it’s your turn to put a song in the queue, just choose one or two, and don’t commit the awful faux pas of putting your song at the top, skipping others waiting their turn.
3. Sing Anything
When it comes to song selection, there aren’t any rules. You’ll find a wide variety of songs, both Chinese and English, available at most KTV shops.
- Choose your favorites, Chinese or English.
- Sing a duet with a friend.
- Find a group song that everyone can join in on.
You’ll find that a lot of popular KTV songs are very sappy love songs. Lucky for you, those are often the easiest to sing along with. If you really want to impress your hosts, find a Chinese song you can sing.
4. Be Ready for a Long Haul
KTV halls are rented by the hour, but don’t expect to be done anytime soon. In my experience the shortest KTV session will run around 4 hours. And that’s bare minimum. The more people involved, the longer you’re expected to stay (everyone needs a turn after all!) If there’s drinking involved, and there often is, make sure you’re ready for a long night.
5. Food and Drink
The vast majority of KTV’s offer some sort of food. I’ve seen everything from simple pre-packaged snacks to full buffets.
Menus are usually under the large table in the center of the room. Again, let your Chinese hosts take the lead on this, but if you want anything just ring the bell and order away.
All KTV’s will, without a doubt, have alcohol on hand. It’s actually how most establishments make the majority of their money. Chinese drinking culture is another discussion (or two) on its own, but if you’re looking to have a good time, you won’t be disappointed.
But What Songs Should I Sing?
If you grew up in middle America like I did, you can definitely sing along with “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places”, “Don’t Stop Believin’”, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. They may not be your favorite songs, or the most fashionable, or even current, but everyone knows them!
But what about in China? What are the songs that everyone knows? The songs that everyone can sing along with (or groan at) in those infamous karaoke sessions? The truth is that just about any song is fair game during your karaoke session. Your best rendition of “Take Me Home Country Roads” will be met with cheers and smiles, as will any myriad of English songs.
Culture has become globalized, and English language music is hugely popular. Your KTV will have a large sampling of English-language songs and your Chinese counterparts, especially if they’re under the age of about 40, will definitely have their own selection of English favorites. And in fact, they’ll be very likely to pull out their favorite English song as a way of crossing cultural boundaries and showing respect. So what if you want to return the favor?
Just like in the West, Chinese music lovers have a ‘songbook’ of known favorites, both old and new, that everyone will know:
1.月亮代表我的心 鄧麗君 (The Moon Represents My Heart, Teresa Teng )
This is the ultimate classic. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, Teresa Teng’s rendition of “The Moon Represents My Heart” became wildly popular in mainland China.
The lyrics are just about as sappy as you might expect, including lines like “you ask me how deep my love is” and “a soft kiss has moved my heart”.
Released in 1977, it is considered an ‘older’ song (think “Hey Jude” or “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”), but you’re sure to be met with glee and laughter if you pull this out at your next Karaoke session.
2. 朋友 周华健/周華健 (Friend, Wakin Chau)
“Friend” is a pop/rock crossover that is a favorite karaoke choice. China is a rapidly changing landscape. I say that so that when you see a 1997 song in the ‘oldies’ section you’ll know what I mean.
The lyrics speak of friendship and days gone by: “Friends together for life, those days won’t come again, a single word, a single lifetime, a single life of brotherly love, a single glass of wine.”
This song is especially popular among those…less confident in their singing abilities: Wakin Chau’s punchy singing style means that this song can essentially be spoken or half sung, making it perfect when you’ve run out of ways to politely refuse.
3. 我的心里只有你/我的心裡只有你 静婷 (My Heart Has Only You, Jing Ting)
Historia de un Amor (Original Title)
This is actually not a Chinese song. Not originally anyway. But its Chinese translation is still incredibly popular. Originally composed in 1955 by Panamanian songwriter Carlos Eleta Almarin (with Spanish lyrics), “My Heart has Only You” has been translated and released in many languages.You can usually find several versions of this in the KTV rolodex, but the ‘original’ and most popular version is that sung by Jing Ting in 1960. (A more upbeat rendition from 黃小琥 (huángxiǎohǔ) is also a popular choice.)
As an added bonus, if you’re more confident in one of the other myriad languages this song has been translated into, you can delight your hosts with your “foreign language” version.
4. 天路 韩红/韓紅 Sky Road, Han Hong
“Sky Road” is not for the faint of heart. The story goes that the composer, visiting Tibet in 2001, saw the railroad being constructed in the towering mountains there and was inspired to write.
The song, which might be better translated as “Heavenly Road” or “Road to Heaven”, draws inspiration from Tibetan folk song traditions. The lyrics speak of sweeping landscapes and the “railroad to heaven on earth”.
The song is difficult to sing. Reflective of the mountains that inspired the composer, the vocal line stretches into the high reaches of a singer’s range.
The best version, and the one you’ll find in most karaoke parlors, is that sung by Han Hong, one of China’s biggest singing stars. Of Tibetan ethnicity herself (her mother was a famous Tibetan folk singer), Han Hong’s vocals will be sure to give you a workout.
5. 海阔天空/海闊天空 Beyond (Boundless Oceans Vast Skies, Beyond)
This is the ultimate Chinese rock song. Released in 1993 by Beyond, the most famous Cantopop/Cantonese rock band ever, this song is hugely popular. How popular?
The lyrics are in Cantonese (talk about impressing your hosts!), but every time I’ve been to KTV in China (and not only in Cantonese speaking Guangzhou, but also in Harbin, Chengdu, and Beijing), everybody, even those northerners that can’t understand a word of Cantonese, can still sing along with the lyrics.
Emotional and energetic, the music and lyrics feel like a classic-rock throwback from The Eagles.
1. 存在 汪峰 (Exist, Wang Feng)
Wang Feng is China’s biggest name in the rock genre and “Exist” is one of his biggest songs. His career based out of Beijing, Wang Feng’s popularity rose after being a judge/coach on the Chinese version of “The Voice”, 中国好声音.
That popularity of “Exist” stems from the beautiful yet simple melodic line and relatable lyrics like “How many people walk, yet stay in place; How many people live, yet act like they’re dead; How many people laugh, yet are full of tears; How should I exist?”
“Exist” was released in 2012 and is definitely one of the modern mainstays of every karaoke session.
2. 我的歌声里/我的歌聲裡 曲婉婷 (In My Song, Qu Wan Ting)
“In My Song” is a great song for learning through lyrics. Released in 2012, Qu Wan Ting’s version of this song is another option that’s great for those that aren’t looking forward to their turn at the mic.
It is, like a lot of Chinese pop songs, a bit of a cheesy love song, with lyrics like “You quietly disappeared from my world, you didn’t leave any messages, all I’m left with is the memories”.
This song is quite lyric heavy, which makes it great for language learners. Most KTV’s also offer this song as a duet version, with one voice singing the lyric-heavy verse and the other singing the lyrical chorus.
3. 小苹果/小蘋果 筷子兄弟 (Little Apple, Chopstick Brothers)
The ultimate party song. Purported to be China’s answer to the famous South Korean song “Gangnam Style”, choosing “Little Apple” is a great way to get the whole room involved in the action. The song is easy to sing and repetitive, very repetitive.
One of the other great things about “Little Apple” is the accompanying music video. It’s an over-the-top skit by the Chopstick Brothers (a comedy duo), and even includes a group dance. Since all KTV’s play the music video along with the song, you’ll have nearly six and a half minutes of entertainment.
4. 我們不一樣 大壯 (We’re Not the Same, Da Zhuang)
Another story of brotherly love. Even though it was released in 2017, this song draws heavily from the classic-rock genre. With a simple melody and frequently recurring tag, you will definitely hear this song at least once at every karaoke gathering.
It might seem at first that the lyrics of “We’re Not the Same” will take some time, but you’ll soon realize that all of the repetition makes it quite easy (and great for language learning!)
Da Zhuang is new on the Chinese music scene, appearing in 2017, so learning this song should keep you current for years to come.
5. 不該 周杰倫、张惠妹/張惠妹 (Shouldn’t Be, Jay Chou and Amei)
The duet show piece. I couldn’t write about Chinese karaoke without mentioning Jay Chou. In fact, you could just be prepared with any of his songs and be a hit at your KTV party. Jay Chou is (and has been for years) the biggest Mandopop star on the planet. And fellow Taiwanese singer Amei, judge/coach for The Voice of China season 2, is no slouch either.
“Shouldn’t be” is a great modern duet choice, best suited for a male and female singer. It requires a bit of…finesse vocally, but if you and your partner are up to the challenge it would be a great choice.
What Does this Have to Do with Language Learning?
Singing is a fantastic way to learn a language.
Have you ever noticed that you can easily recite all the lyrics to your favorite songs, but struggle to memorize a 5-minute speech? And those lyrics are locked in your mind for years and years. When was the last time you actually sang “Mary Had a Little Lamb’? And yet I bet you can recite each word without even thinking about it. That’s because music has a profound effect on our ability to learn language. And there’s proof.
A 2013 study from the University of Edinburgh showed that people that studied language using singing doubled their retention rate. The study introduced participants to various phrases in Hungarian, chosen because it is a language that the participants were unlikely to have any previous association with.
In the study, one group heard the phrases spoken and repeated them back verbatim, the next group heard and repeated the phrases in a rhythmic pattern, and the third group did the same process but this time in song form. 15-minutes later, all three groups were tested to see how well they retained the information. The singing group performed twice as well as the other two!
Scientific proof! And it makes sense. After all, I personally can still recite all of my modal verbs (be, am, as, is, was, were, being, been, do, does, did, have, has, had, will, would, shall, should, can, could, may, might, must) thanks to a song my 6th grade English teacher made the class learn.
But there’s even more great reasons to use songs to improve your language abilities:
1. Expand Your Vocabulary
Song lyrics are a great way to increase your vocabulary. Songs are written for the common people so you can get a real sense of the type of language that’s being used in conversation.
Songs also make heavy use of common idioms. These little linguistic tidbits can be very difficult to learn, and especially difficult to learn how to use them. Songs help with that.
Some songs also use very poetic language. Pop music tends to be more conversational with its lyrics, but other types of singing can be very artistic. This kind of specialized language is difficult to encounter in daily conversation, so songs are a great way to familiarize yourself.
Use of slang, contextual vocabulary, and even rhyming are features that songs often include.
2. Repetition is Easy
Let’s face it, learning a language takes a lot of repetition. If you don’t have access to a great language learning system, that repetition can be boring and impractical.
Songs, on the other hand, naturally feature repetition. If you sing a song through just one time, you have already repeated the chorus several times and probably a verse or two as well.
If you find a song you love, you’ll sing along over and over as you enjoy the music and learn the language.
3. Music is Culture
Music is a great way to learn about culture.
Learning a language is not just about memorizing vocabulary or reading newspapers, it’s gaining a unique understanding of the culture associated with that language.
Musicians are often at the forefront of pop culture and learning their songs will let you in on various social morsels and cultural memes.
Don’t forget, music is culture. For so many other cultural elements you have to be in that country to really experience it. But with music, you can connect to a distant culture from anywhere in the world.
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