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COMPASS MAGAZINE, April - May 1998. VOL. 5 ISSUE 3

At the Mic: Karaoke Television

By Mia Shanley

Vocal talent means nothing in the karaoke world. It has never mattered whether or not one sings well. The point is that it is a moment to shine -- on or off key. It is the one form of entertainment where you can only blame yourself -- the entertainer -- for not having a good time.

Outside of Japan, the largest number of karaoke clubs, more commonly known as KTVs, can be found in Taiwan. Taichung itself is said to have the largest number of KTVs on the island. May not be the first thing to market to the masses, but it is inherently a part of Taiwanese culture and probably the easiest activities for foreigners to access. As artificial as KTVs may be to westerners, who would rather be outside creating their own entertainment, there is something about the Asian karaoke experience that shouldn¡¦t be missed.

It's laid back entertainment that gives foreigners an optimum chance to completely submerge themselves and revel in Taiwanese modern culture.

Karaoke was supposedly started in a tiny snack bar in Kobe City, Japan. When the entertainer of the night wasn't available due to an illness or other undetermined reasons, the owner of the bar would play tapes of background music, toss the microphone into the customer's hands and the rest was history.

Karaoke combines two Japanese words: kara is short for karappo, which means empty, and oke is part of okestura, meaning orchestra. An empty orchestra, a mic and a singer - the major ingredients of karaoke.

Since its origination 20 years ago, Taiwan has also picked up on the karaoke craze. The Taiwanese have worked diligently over the past years, making karaoke their own.

Today, karaoke clubs and bars are one of the most popular forms of entertainment for the Taiwanese. It is difficult to travel through any city in Taiwan without being flashed down in the dark by bright neon lights luring passerbys Vegas-style.

Taichung currently has over *** KTVs listed in the white pages. Many of these KTVs are legitimate chains and family-like entertainment clubs. Other KTVs put some ambiguity into Taiwan's definition of illegal. Even with the latest crackdowns on high-end KTV clubs, which cater to some of Taiwan's richest businessmen, Jio Diens (KTV Night Clubs) are rank high in numbers.

Some of the more conspicuous KTVs focus on giving businessmen full nights of alcohol and fun. They are easily recognized by the red, white and blue twirling barbershop spindle out in front. Large posters of semi-naked women are most likely your best insight into what kind of business these laobans are running.

If entered, expect to be bombarded by KTV "princesses", decked out in elaborate chiapo clothing, who are looking to dig deep into your pockets. One night at a Jio Dien could amount from NT$30 to 40,000. Even the smaller ones, which are barely visible from the street and usually have dark steaming windows, offer shady entertainment for around NT$5,000 or NT$600 per person.

Aside from the fact that A-mei and Coco's latest "Di da di" will both be missing from the shelves, don't expect to find any foreign music either. Since most of Jio Diens customers are older businessmen, their selections are mainly limited to traditional Taiwanese music. The clubs are also known for having bad systems, since singing karaokee is not always the main purpose.

There are plenty of establishments which offer good wholesome singing fun, as wholesome as karaoke can get of course. Perhaps the most famous and most popular KTV chain in Taiwan is Holiday KTV, which beam bright orange and white signs which are difficult to miss. Holiday KTV is known for their good service and excellent systems, providing optimum singing needs.

Holiday KTV is probably the best option for foreigners since it boasts a large foreign music selection as well as a large collection of the latest Chinese pop songs. Unless you can read characters, it is best to memorize the lyrics before entering since the TV screens don't offer ba pa ma pa or ping ying. On any weekday, Holiday can cost around NT$199 per person for up to two and a half hours of singing. On the weekends, the price jumps to NT$299 per person. Drinks and food are not included in the price. There are up to 40 rooms at each Holiday KTV but it is advisable to go early since it is one of the hottest spots for Chinese teenagers to hang out. Holiday KTVs are located downtown **** and at 821 Wen Hsin Rd., Section 4.

If you are looking for something more private and comfortable, you can rent a room at Ja Nien Hua or Hu Jia Huan, both which feature private wooden houses for groups of people. A small room for 5 people costs NT$300 per person, a middle sized room costs around $500 per person and a large room may cost up to $800 per person. There are two Ja Nien Huas in Taichung which can be found on Chung Kang Rd before the bus station and on Han Ko Rd., Section 4. Hu Jia Huan also has two locations at Nantun Rd. and Wen Hsin Rd., Section 2.

If you want to go KTV hopping, about 10 different privately owned KTVs can be found in second section of Wen Hsin Rd. between Kung Yi Rd. and Chung Kang Rd. There are also (ask Doug )***

While karaokee may not revolutionize the musical world, who is to say that stars won¡¦t be born as they find themselves at the mic within the confines of a KTV. One thing is certain however -- the Taiwanese love to sing. While most westerners are more reserved about karaoke, often times willing only to sing in large groups or while under the influence of alcohol at bars, the Chinese travel in hordes to KTVs, with family members, friends, co-workers and strangers. It rare to meet a Chinese person who has not willingly visited a KTV once or twice in his or her life.

All foreigners living in Taiwan should take on the KTV experience before returning home. It may not seem authentic, traditional, or cultural for that matter. And it's not be as fun as majong or as meaningful as tae kwan do and most would agree that it's artificial entertainment at its best. But when the lights hit you and the music starts, you'll understand the karaoke craze. Maybe you'll want more, maybe you won't. But you'll never know unless you try.

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