Karaoke Week

Koreatown’s Karaoke Bars Made Me Feel Less Lonely in LA

Now they might all be closing.

If you grew up Korean-American, chances are you had to perform at some point in front of your parents’ friends, and chances are, that performance was singing. Why our respected elders foist this humiliating obligation on us at such a young and tender age, I’ll never know, but this much is true -- singing is a huge part of our culture (hello K-pop).

“You were lucky if you were able to survive childhood without having to perform in front of your parents’ friends at least once, probably multiple times while growing up,” Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, author of Eating Korean and a Glassell Park resident, tells us.

I moved to East Hollywood at a ripe old age, after years embarrassing myself in front of friends and coworkers at Manhattan karaoke bars, which are notoriously expensive. The proximity to Ktown made dropping by a noraebang (aka “singing room”) a no-brainer, and I soon found that it was cheaper and easier than in New York to do so. It’s refreshing to not drop my entire wallet on a few hours of hits and Hites, and there are far more karaoke rooms here, which makes them easier to reserve or stumble into.

LA’s Koreatown neighborhood spans 2.7 square miles, and is roughly bordered by Beverly Boulevard, Virgil Avenue, Olympic Boulevard and Crenshaw Boulevard, but some of its establishments sprawl as far south as Pico Boulevard. But it’s Sixth Street where Korean karaoke joints line the strip, radiating neon electricity. After devouring soondubu jjigae and barbecue, hordes of twenty- and thirty-somethings spill out onto the sidewalk, gossiping and watching Kpop videos while waiting for their karaoke room to open up. Since the food is debatably superior in LA’s Ktown, my friends and I are more likely to make it a full night on the town within just one neighborhood, chomping on cheesy galbijjim or searing kimchi jjigae before karaoke, and then slurping up some kalguksu after. 

Korean karaoke spots are more plentiful, and more spacious, than those in New York (my former home) -- there’s less of a chance we’ll hit one up and never get in. Plus, there’s so much else to do -- from Milk Tavern dessert bar, with its video games and ping pong table, to 24-hour Korean saunas like Spa Palace, to dark makgeolli havens like Dan Sung Sa --  that karaoke is just one drunken segment of the evening.

“It's the default thing to do for the third or fourth stage of the night's activities,” Matthew Kang, Editor at Eater LA says. 

Maybe it’s fighting the traffic and our urban sprawl, or the more laid-back way of living here, but it’s been harder to make friends in LA than in New York. Ktown is central to everyone in LA, so karaoke rooms have helped grease the wheels. I can go all night with new friends or coworkers in LA, pumped up on dakgalbi and acerbically refreshing shots of Chamisul, without worrying about the tab. And we can all get home in 20 minutes in a Lyft. That is...I could until COVID-19 hit. 

Unlike my parents, I don’t have a karaoke machine at home, so it’s hard to replicate the noraebang experience. And even if I did, I’m not sure I would use it. There’s a feeling of connection that happens when you’re packed into a tiny room full of friends -- one you just can’t get when you’re trying to sing on an at-home karaoke machine. 

"Some of the most surprising and magical moments of human connection I've experienced in LA have happened at karaoke,” Kasiemobi Udo-Okoye, a writer and artist living in Hollywood, says. “I go with coworkers, with new friends, with international relatives making surprise visits -- sometimes we don't even speak the same language fluently. And the result is always the same -- we all shrug off our insecurities and stress for a while and just embrace the fun of singing our hearts out and dancing like the rest of the world doesn't exist.”

There’s also a bonding that happens when you all stop pretending you’re perfect -- especially with coworkers or new friends you’re eager to impress. At my best, I’ve been known to do a guitar kick. At my worst, I’ve definitely fallen off a table (I shouldn’t have been on it in the first place). But in the morning at work, I always felt like my colleagues and I had taken our relationship a little further, and we worked better together. 

"I went to karaoke with a new connection from a Facebook group, nervous about fitting in, and by the end of the night we'd had a blast singing Queen and decided to hang out again,” Udo-Okoye says. “Now, we've been friends for years.”

It feels right now like we need to be karaoke heroes more than ever, with wildfires raging around us and the sky in LA clouded with smoke. 

But all the noraebangs in LA are closed. Seana Kang, owner of STAR Karaoke, a 19-room traditional noraebang, and The Venue, a 10,000-square-foot upscale bar and restaurant with 13 noraebang-style karaoke rooms, says that in her conversations with other owners, they are all struggling. The question is how to pivot and survive as a nightlife proprietor during a time when there’s virtually no nightlife.

“The changes in income for us have been pretty drastic,” Kang says. “(The Venue’s) business model is for nightlife and the karaoke rooms, so it’s been a challenge. We’re making it work, and hoping to push through COVID with an outdoor patio.”

Kang says many of the karaoke bar owners she’s been speaking with are thinking of shutting down permanently, especially if the government offers no further aid for small businesses.

“Though many of the landlords are giving owners a little bit of a discount and some are participating in the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program, once their loans are exhausted they will probably shut down,” Kang says. “A lot of them are waiting out 2020 to see how it goes, but think they’ll have to shut down in 2021, especially if there’s no relief from the government.”

Kang says that this is the first time The Venue has offered delivery or pickup in its three years since opening. Unfortunately, she says, “most customers aren’t seeking out karaoke businesses for ordering meals, since there are already so many restaurants in the area.” 

Kang is hopeful both her businesses can stay open. The Venue has been serving a modified takeout menu during COVID-19, but will pivot with its full menu available at its new outdoor patio debuting next week. The patio, Kang says, is spacious and will allow for socially distanced dining. Cocktails will be available when food is purchased.

“We’ve rented additional space at the corner of Normandie and Wilshire, where you’ll be able to see the patio from outdoors and the colors will really pop out to you as you’re driving by,” Sarah Bennett, General Manager at The Venue, says. “It will be a beautiful, expansive outdoor patio and we’re very dedicated to having an exterior that matches our interior.” 

Eating, drinking and singing in LA’s Koreatown go hand-in-hand. Many restaurants have already fallen, and Matt Kang is afraid noraebang businesses may soon follow.

“During a pandemic, this kind of nightlife is basically impossible, and this culture might never return to a Koreatown that's already battered by closures of longtime neighborhood restaurants,” Matt Kang says. “You can't really do takeout karaoke or ‘outdoor’ karaoke.”

Unfortunately, noraebangs are a perfect site for virus spread, because they’re so small and closed-off. In Seoul, they’ve been identified as a site of the spread of at least five cases. And most karaoke bar owners don’t have the cash to flash for exorbitant ventilation systems. Plus, think about the fact that you’re belting out the hits, but also whatever’s in your lungs. Though the mics have disposable covers, you can’t avoid what’s in the air.

We know not all of the karaoke joints will survive a year to a year and a half of closure, but I’m praying my fave, YD, survives. It’s a small spot next to barbecue restaurant, Yang San Bak, and across from Cassell’s and The Normandie Club, and it’s where I had one of my best birthday parties. It’s also the site where I would park myself to sad-sing during happy hour after a brutal two-hour cross-town commute.

“I can’t imagine coming out of the pandemic and seeing all these karaoke bars closed,” filmmaker Naomi Ko says. “These bars are part of the magic of Ktown.”

“I can't even imagine getting sweaty and singing away to 90s R&B jams or yet another rendition of Radiohead's ‘Creep,’ while crammed into a room full of people,” Kang says. “LA's Koreatown might never feel the same, because singing loudly while enclosed in a room is completely untenable during a pandemic. Hopefully they can find a way to hang on.”

Singing with a mask on just wouldn’t work -- how could I do a muffled version of “Bohemian Rhapsody?” I’m waiting for you, noraebangs. I’ll be the first to rent a light-up tambourine and belt out “Black Velvet” when and if karaoke comes back.

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Dakota Kim is a contributor for Thrillist.