KTV In China
I lived in China for 8 months but miraculously was only dragged to Karaoke once in the entire time I was there. I had always been averse to the idea, in the US or China or anywhere. I imagined a room full of drunk people singing horribly to overplayed pop songs, either ruining ones you liked or irrevocably lodging ones you didn’t like into your head, where they would play over and over again for the following three days like some inner ear inferno. I love singing in a more formal context, where I can pay attention to what is coming out of my mouth, and if in front of an audience at least not a totally intoxicated one. Besides, my knowledge of the songs included in the karaoke booklets is somewhat pathetic in the United States, and in China virtually null.
I have since been once in the US and must admit to enjoying it- ham that I am, singing in front of anyone gives me a certain high, and I found a Bonnie Raitt song hidden in the selection that I knew well enough to get into singing.
In Asia KTV is extremely popular, drawing huge crowds of college students, friends, even business men, the favorite pastime and most relished activity for a Saturday night. It was amazing that I had avoided it for as long as I did. The circumstances in which I finally found myself in front of the flickering tv, little ball bouncing along the tacky font, remains with me as one of the closest views I ever had of a certain side of China, the one making it the polarized, complicated, metropolitan country it is: extreme power and wealth.
We were in Kunming, the capital of the Yunnan province, in the Southwest of China, having just returned from Chinese New Year celebrations in a village a few hours north. Kunming was one of my favorite cities that I visited, and I often wonder if things would have turned out differently had I stayed in that fair city instead of returning to Beijing. We were there in February and enjoyed spring-like weather: balmy days, warm but not hot, soft and refreshing breeze maintaining an ideal jeans-and-tshirt temperature. Yunnan is a fascinating region, boasting an incredible variety of terrain, including rainforest in its south leading finally down into Laos, mountains in its north, and desert in the southwest, all the way to the border of Tibet. It is home to almost 30 of China’s 56 ethnic minorities, groups whose ancestors are not the Han, unlike the majority of Chinese. In my limited understanding, they are given a certain distance by the mainstream population, are left largely to themselves and function as strong independent communities, are often plagued by poverty and sometimes racism, but have certain privileges in contemporary China such as an exception to the country’s one-child policy, in an effort to keep the groups and their traditions alive. They also have some of the best food- no surprises there, so many marginalized communities do. The Dai food we ate in Kunming was probably one of the best meals I had while in the country, and different from most mainstream Chinese cuisines. Among the many dishes, we ate a kind of hot grilled cheese similar to Greek Halloumi which you dipped into a mixture of salt and spices and that squeaked pleasantly between your teeth. They have other unexpected ingredients in Yunnan, including a salt aged pork haunch similar to prosciutto, eaten sliced off the bone or cooked into stews and stirfrys. They even grow coffee in that region. I cannot recall the rest of the dishes, except that they were excellent- some fish stew, herb based dishes, pork, vegetables, rice, all deeply flavorful.
We were still wheeling from our experiences of the New Year and were unwinding in our hostel, the strangely named Hump Hostel, predictably pleasant with an outdoor terrace and laundry. I was on the trip with my friend H from Beijing. H’s ex-ish-girlfriend’s brother was also living in China, and his girlfriend B was from a village in Yunnan, which is where we had gone for New Year. They were on route back to Guangzhou, a large city in South China just across the border from Hong Kong. B’s friend was in town, was it all right if he hung out with us? He grew up a few villages over from hers, and they had been childhood friends. We merrily acquiesced, glad to have a night on the town, imagining him a student type or local low level white collar professional. She summoned us, saying he was waiting in his car below to pick us up.
We made our way down the funky graffitied staircase, past the hostel restaurant on the first floor and out onto the street. There waited what even I knew to be an extremely expensive car, recognizable even to the car-illiterate like me by the lack of a license plate: if you’re rich enough to have a car like that, the police wouldn’t dare stop you- you must be very well connected and thus immune to petty law enforcement. Who could this childhood friend be, with a car like this?
We were welcomed into the cool interior, and I sat in awe with no idea where we were headed. My limited Chinese picked out the word karaoke, so I couldn’t fathom why we were pulling into a tree lined driveway in front of what seemed to be a hotel. Indeed, we were informed, this was the nicest hotel in the city of Kunming. We were led through a shiny-floored potted-planted main lobby and up a red-plush lined elevator, finally down an elegant hallway to a private room. I caught glimpses of the hotel workers, scurrying around catering to invisible customers behind other private doors. The same thoughts came as I had had in so many dirty, brilliant banquet style restaurants in China- who were these enigmatic masses, where were they from, how did they feel about serving this rich clientele? They were likely migrant workers, from the countryside, come to the city to make money, waiters by career. In the restaurants I had been to, all relatively humble ones after all, the waiters mostly ignored you, scowled, picked their nails or teeth or their uniforms, gossiped and giggled. Here though, the clientele was clearly much richer, and much more demanding, and had much more money to spend, and was a much rarer breed- a tiny clan of outrageously wealthy people, the .001%. The service was acquiescent and impeccably subservient.
Up an elevator and down a carpeted corridor, into a private salon with lush leather couches, coffee tables laden with snacks (an enormous bowl of all different kinds of fruit; chips; some meaty spicy finger food), and of course an impressive television.
We sat down on the plush seats, the four of us, the rich friend, and what turned out to be his bodyguard. He asked us what we would like to drink, wine perhaps? He would drink only a cup of tea, since he was very tired and had to fly to Thailand in the morning, and our friends noted that since heavy drinking is such an integral part of business interactions in China, most businessmen almost never drink for pleasure, being worn from the constant consumption their job requires.
Three bottles of wine were procured. There is now a limited amount of domestic wine production, the most popular and noxious of which being the Great Wall wine. This was imported wine, evidence of the desirability of western things and above all of dispensable income. The wine was very good, and clearly expensive. We were attended by a charming Chinese hostess, well dressed and available for our every need, and I could not help but wonder if they provided other services as well, in other rooms, with other intoxicated male clients. She opened the first bottle. We were appalled by her suggestion that we take ice in our red wine. She seemed to regard it as a sort of red version of the fiery clear moonshine-like Baijiu, a Chinese spirit that tastes a lot like nail polish remover smells, which can only possibly be ingested in small, rapid quantities, from a shot glass or directly from the bottle. Its taste is not to be lingered over. Indeed, baijiu can be literally translated as ‘white alcohol’, and the Chinese word for wine as ‘red alcohol’. No surprise then that our hostess presented Bacchus’ introspective liquid as a shot, a small pour in our glasses, and a glass for herself with ice. Then an elaborate process of cheersing, glass in both hands, bowing and clinking glasses with her, with each other, consuming the wine as if it were so much vodka. I was surprised that she too was drinking, another cultural difference among so many that I encountered on this strange evening.
After a few rounds of toasts, we settled back to chat. I understood bits and pieces of the conversation but was glad for a translation from my friends. The rich friend recounted his life story and his work. He had grown up in a small village and then joined the army, made a series of connections with important people, and ended up in business. His company imported seafood from southeast Asia, which is where he had made all his money. He offhandedly supplied the secret to his fortune- he only did business in a sector where he had a monopoly. Well. No wonder then.
High on the wine and the riches of our surroundings, as well as a complete sense of disorientation in what seemed to be a crazy dream, we scrolled through the options on the ktv. There were very few songs in English but we scouted them out (mostly Madonna), and the Chinese girlfriend gave us her rendition of her favorite Chinese pop songs. The rich friend left early with his bodyguard, and the hostess then quietly disappeared since the owner of the credit card was no longer there to impress. Left alone to our own devices in a luxurious hotel ktv suite and two bottles of good wine, we did what anyone sensible would do- we got drunk, sang loudly, and danced crazy.
It got late, we got sleepy. Back to the hostel? No, to the spa! For the rich friend had apparently left us his spa membership card. I couldn’t believe the spa would be open so late, but Chinese girlfriend said they were open all night, and even had beds, and since Chinese girlfriend and American boyfriend had a flight to catch early in the morning, they would simply sleep at the spa and leave there for their flight. So back to the hostel, we collected their bags, and took a cab to the spa.
Entering the lobby, we were given a skeptical look, but upon presentation of the membership card we magically gained royalty status, since we were friends of a Very Important Person, and were whisked into the antechamber. Tired and overwhelmed, I floated wherever I was directed: a very hot shower in an impressive tiled shower, hot steam, a vigorous scrubbing to remove dead skin and toxins (so I was informed), special spa clothing, booties and robe, a female pampering salon, an array of beauty products available for our noble consumption. An elevator ride somewhere upwards, into this temple of comfort. An unlit floor, Chinese girlfriend told me we would now be given a massage, but by whom? It was already past 2 or 3 in the morning, quite late for China. But Chinese girlfriend summoned the manager, and insisted that we receive massages, but no one was in the building, the manager bemoaned, but we must receive massages! We were friends of a Very Important Person so massages would be procured, the manager sighed deeply and retreated, we were shown to a room like a hotel room (were there special services delivered in this establishment also, I wondered? on these beds?) Exhausted, I laid down, at some point two young ladies shuffled in, and as they started to rub our shoulders, my last thought was to wonder where the hell they had been when they had been called to work so late at night before I fell deeply asleep.
I awoke as Chinese girlfriend was wheeling her suitcase out of the room to go catch her plane. It must have been only six or seven in the morning, but I was wide awake with a deep sense of strangeness. I peeked out into the hallway and found my friend from Beijing, filled with an equal sense of not belonging. Lets get the hell out of here, we said, we slunk out, and went back to our hostel.