Karaoke, Take Me Home

Do Chinese people have something in common when it comes to recreation? Yes, they love karaoke! According to a recent report from Horizon China, a leading market research firm, karaoke is one of the top three social activities among the Chinese today, followed by dining together and sports. It has definitely become a big part of regional culture in China.

ORIGINALLY INVENTED IN JAPAN, karaoke underwent rapid development in China during the 1990s and has now spread to every corner of the country. One of the most popular types of karaoke venues is KTV, i.e. Karaoke Television. In China, KTVs have developed into full service entertainment centres, offering comprehensive and synthetic services. Besides karaoke boxes, they also include bars, dining, health care and bathing facilities so as to cater specially to the needs of the Chinese consumer. Many of them even have deluxe interior designs and luxurious stereos that surpass the look and feel of a cinema.

Although karaoke is practiced worldwide, what sets the Chinese apart from the rest of the world is probably their motivation for pursuing the activity. According to the well-known American psychologist Maslow, human beings embrace five layers of hierarchical needs which move from physiological to safety, to love and belonging, to self-esteem and eventually to self-actualisation. Karaoke plays an important role in fulfilling the last three needs for Chinese people.

According to Maslow, the first need that karaoke fulfils for the Chinese is love and belonging. They refer to the need of belonging and being accepted among relevant social groups, which may include friends, colleagues, professional organisations, religious groups and sports teams. Karaoke is a socialising tool that bridges the gap between people. Regardless of whether they are with a crowd of friends or with a group of co-workers, Chinese people neither feel shy about singing, nor are they obliged to listen to others sing. Someone can be singing while others are playing drinking games or even sleeping! Under no pressure to perform professionally, even the introvert will sing their hearts out to others. People take turns to sing or to listen, and they simply enjoy the happiness of participation. In other words, karaoke creates a friendly atmosphere for people to warm up, to bond, and to relate to one another. Whether one is singing or getting drunk, it is always a good time.

What is more interesting is that some business deals are also negotiated during karaoke sessions. The Chinese have long been well known for their ‘dining table culture’, vividly portraying the phenomenon that a great deal of successful communication is achieved at the ‘dining table’. While Westerners tend to talk business in offices, cafes or bars, most Chinese are more willing to do it over dinner, mixing business with pleasure. Now, this ‘culture’ has extended to include karaoke. After dining, the business partners will invite the other party to go to the KTV to further discuss business projects. They sing and play together to create a sense of closeness to one another and eventually close a sale during the karaoke session.
Maslow’s second need that karaoke fulfils for the Chinese is self-esteem. Referring to the need to be recognised, respected and valued by others, self-esteem may be attained by engaging in an activity, a profession or a hobby. Many Chinese companies have developed the tradition of holding karaoke contests. The winners can benefit greatly from the contests, not only by gaining recognition and prizes but also by getting bonuses and even a future promotion. As a result, being able to sing well is certainly a valuable skill to have.

The final Maslow need that karaoke fulfils for the Chinese is self-actualisation. Self- actualisation refers to the need to realise full potential and achieve greatness. Karaoke has met this need in various ways. First, it apparently has made average people feel like superstars, no matter how badly they sing. There is usually a wide selection of Chinese music, other Asian music and Western music available. So it is easy for participants to find songs they are good at. Additionally, most karaoke machines on the market today come with a scoring function. This feature has widened karaoke’s appeal and introduced an element of competitiveness into the pastime.

Second, karaoke has definitely served as an outlet for self-expression. People may perceive self-actualisation very differently and consequently express their desires in various ways. Some express it through parenting, playing sports or creating, while others simply need a microphone to sing and a stage to perform. The boxes in KTVs fortunately happen to agree with Chinese people’s personalities. That is, they want to let out their emotions, to vent their angst, to release their stress and to relieve their feelings. But yet, they do not want too much publicity for that.
In Japanese, the word ‘kara’ is short for ‘karappo’ meaning empty, and ‘oke’ is short for ‘okesutura’ meaning orchestra. However, can this empty orchestra or the one-man show really satisfy a hierarchy of needs? I interviewed a friend of mine. For him, a regular KTV night with friends usually started at 9 p.m., and it often lasted so long that the earliest time anyone would leave was at 2 a.m. He said that he felt obliged to participate in this monthly activity, and did not really have all that much fun. “Karaoke is like an urban illness,” he commented, “the longer you hang out in the KTVs, and the later you go home, the more you will actually feel a sense of emptiness.” He went on to say that everybody had a blast at the karaoke party but at the same time they also felt perplexed about their lives.

It is hard to describe how popular karaoke is in China. Nowadays, karaoke is even going mobile with mobile devices. Many young Chinese people like singing karaoke on computers or mobile phones, and then uploading their recorded pieces to various websites. This makes it even easier for Chinese people to enjoy karaoke whenever and wherever they want.

Apparently, technology has diversified the way in which people enjoy karaoke, and consequently it also increases the potential for karaoke to meet even more needs. For instance, mobile karaoke is a great handy tool to relieve the pressure at anytime of contemporary people's daily life and work. It also compensates those who are reluctant to attend the KTVs. All in all, singing karaoke is no longer simply a means of recreation for the Chinese people. It is a self- rewarding and self-fulfilling experience they want to take on for a life-long time.

By Huang Sangruo (黄桑若)