A Karaoke Star is Born in Shanghai

By nightfall, Shanghai’s karaoke palaces are glittering spectacles of neon and chrome, teeming with drunken hordes screeching Chinese love songs into the early morning hours. Such is the scene at the Dapuqiao station branch of Taipei Chun K, a chain of cavernous, multi-story karaoke halls kitted out with blinking LED lights, shimmering disco balls, and faux marble floors. It’s where I find myself one Sunday evening in May, feeling terribly sober as I’m nearly sideswiped by a pair of giggling Shanghai girls teetering arm-in-arm down the dimly-lit hallway.

I’m about a quarter of the way through a six-month trek across the Eastern Hemisphere, a very out-of-character life pivot that I’m now beginning to question. I’d been laid off from my job as an editor in New York City in February, and my itchy-footed husband, Jon, proposed the trip. It all felt very daring and romantic at the start, and I’d fantasized that perhaps, under my nervy exterior, I was secretly an adventurer. A wanderer. Someone fearless and carefree. And yet, just hours before our arrival at Taipei Chun K, I’d felt the warm terror of regret burbling in my throat. I missed home and my former life. I’d buried my face into my nonplussed husband’s chest and wept warm tears into his T-shirt. But we were meeting Shanghai friends, so I blotted my face dry and stepped into a pair of heels.

In truth, I’d been looking forward to our karaoke night a little. Okay, more than a little. Confession: My identity as an early adult revolved around a membership in one of my university’s exclusive a cappella groups, which, admittedly, fulfilled more than a few Pitch Perfect stereotypes. There were no impromptu a cappella battles, but we did roll on campus in matching black-and-white hoodies and almost exclusively attended a cappella parties, where it wasn’t uncommon to break into song after a few cups of Everclear-spiked Kool-Aid. In the bizarro world of undergraduate musical extracurriculars, we were exceedingly cool, or at least thought we were. (Some proof: Here’s me singing Mika’s 2007 earworm “Grace Kelly.”) After college, I bounced around a few post-grad groups, but in the end, I resorted to singing YouTube karaoke into my computer microphone, alone in my room like it was some shameful secret.

Here’s the thing about karaoke in the States: It’s not really about singing. It’s about getting blitzed on $6 PBR-and-a-shot combos and not being mortified when you massacre “Baby One More Time.” In fact, someone who actually sings, or, heaven forbid, has the gall to find the harmony line a third above the melody, is a killjoy. At least that’s my fear when I find myself in a karaoke bar, which rarely happens because I’m too embarrassed to suggest it. No one likes the person who, after a few drinks, thinks they’re on American Idol and front loads the song queue with Whitney Houston power ballads, maintaining a vice-like grip on the microphone. I’m genuinely frightened that I could be that person.

Karaoke is more popular in China than anywhere in America by orders of magnitude, but the etiquette isn’t so different. You’re still expected to get very, very drunk—maybe drunker. But there are no public bars with a microphone at the center like in the U.S., only private rooms. Maybe that’s why showboating isn’t the cardinal sin it is at home: When it’s your song, people stop and listen. If you can really sing, your companions will shove the microphone into your hand again and again. And damn it, you’d better sing.

At 8 p.m., Taipei Chun K is already overrun. Those without reservations sit in noisy clumps on the lobby floor downing bottles of watery Tsingtao, but we breeze past the scrum and into our windowless room, which is massive. It’s decorated like a punk rocker’s French country estate: inky black walls accented by white molding, purple lights that make our faces look bruised, and a massive chandelier. I’ve never seen another karaoke room like it. There’s enough seating here for large crowd, which is odd because we’re just a small group—me, Jon, and a handful of Shanghai-based friends. Or so I thought. A moment later, a stream of friends-of-friends files in until it’s standing room only. Karaoke plans get around fast.

We order two dozen bottles of Tsingtao and Heineken, which appear as though by magic. A pair of Champagne bottles on ice arrive next, followed by a platter of smoking test tube shots in the troublesome hues of a crayon box. They’re sugary and no substitute for the whiskey I desperately wish for, but I knock them back in short order anyway. I’m suddenly nervous. I flash back to a college performance of Etta James’s “At Last,” during which I forgot the lyrics mid-solo in front of an audience of about 200. It was mortifying. Thank goodness for the words on the screen.

The song I’ve queued up blares through the speakers: Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” Something deep, primal, and slightly embarrassing comes over me and I howl into the microphone. I have several explanations for what followed: a) Everyone was plastered and would cheer for anything, b) they were just being nice or c) I’m secretly the world’s greatest singer. Everyone whoops when I careen into the chorus, and for a moment I forget that I’m in black box in Shanghai. I’m back in college, ruling the a cappella scene. No, I’m Adele herself, serenading my legions of fans. They scream and stomp their feet for me. Someone cries.

The next few hours are a blur, but variations on that first performance repeat throughout the night. Several companions have similarly revelatory performances. Maybe we should start a band? The drunken thought lights my brain on fire. I order two bottles of wine, which I never get to. Jon and I stumble outside at around 6 a.m., drunk. It’s light outside, and not the dewy light of sunrise. The sun is bright, as though it’s been up for hours. In the cab on the way home, Jon and I make out like teenagers. We forget my shoes in the car in the rush to get upstairs.

I’d worn them six months prior on my wedding day. The loss stung—Adele wouldn’t have lost her shoes. Or maybe she would. Maybe she would.