For Asian Americans, there's an odd sense of comfort in holding a mic and singing along to the midi version of schmaltzy pop hits. Whether they're tunes by Basil Valdez, Sin Sisamouth or Frank Sinatra, played in private rooms (such as at Ziller in Fullerton) or set against chintzy lights and throbbing bass, (as in XO Night Club in Westminster) the sight of lyrics flashing on a large TV screen brings back memories of Manila, Seoul or Phnom Penh.
After all, in Asia, karaoke is the go-to activity for family get-togethers, birthdays and office team building. When President Barack Obama visited the Philippines on a state visit, Filipino president Noynoy Aquino hosted a karaoke party for him. (Apparently, government officials sang the Motown classic "What's Going On?" with such gusto that National Security Adviser Susan Rice thought it was apt to take the mic and belt out the chorus.)
Karaoke–which, in Japanese, loosely translates to "empty orchestra"–was first invented in the 1970s (both a Filipino and a Japanese claim to have created it first). The practice blew up in Asia both as in-home entertainment and as a popular form of entertainment in nightclubs. Part of its popularity is because it's entertainment and a release; part of it is aspirational. For many poor Filipinos, it's the possibility to sing your way out of poverty, the way Charice Pempengco–who was discovered on The Ellen DeGeneres Show–did. (Charice's mother taught her how to sing with a karaoke machine.)
It eventually found its way to the United States and Canada, brought over to ethnic enclaves by the migrants from Asia. For Cambodians, it's Little Phnom Penh in Long Beach. For Koreans, it's Fullerton. Filipinos have restaurants in West Covina and Anaheim, and the Japanese have Costa Mesa. Such places are restaurants where people can sing karaoke in their native tongue–spaces that become an extension of home.
Not only did the dinuguan and the kare-kare bring forth an idea of nanay's cooking, but the entertainment–Basil Valdez or Sharon Cuneta—also brought back friends and good times from the motherland and morphed into a version of their living room. And in each place, karaoke reveals a different facet of the immigrant culture. For Koreans, karaoke (or Noraebang) is best done in private rooms with friends. For Filipinos, karaoke is made for family living rooms. Some Vietnamese karaoke bars have a reputation for housing criminal elements.
Still, there are more similarities than differences. Lan Duong, an associate professor of culture and media studies at UC Riverside whose research delves into Vietnamese culture and karaoke, says for many immigrants, karaoke is an act of value. For example, she says, when a Vietnamese American goes to a Vietnamese-owned bar and sings Vietnamese songs, it's always contextualized by the immigrant experience. "It [becomes] a reclamation of space," Duong says. "It's where they feel that they reclaim their culture and identity . . . and allows them to feel a sense of 'Vietnameseness' and be part of the place."
The cheesy videos set in historical sites in Asia, the actors in the videos wearing traditional garb–all these elements play a part in creating this nostalgia, translating to a sense of Vietnameseness, one that is being constructed.
It's a heckuva lot different from, say, the Prospector in Long Beach, where, every Wednesday and Friday, a more diverse crowd of regulars–whites, Latinos, blacks and yes, Asians–gather to perform karaoke-night staples such as "Total Eclipse of the Heart" or TLC's "Waterfalls." It's rowdy, sure, but it's also performed very ironically. The singers ham it up; they act funny and play around while singing for the crowd.
Christine Bacareza Balance, an assistant professor of Asian American studies at UC Irvine, says that how earnest or ironic you are while at karaoke is a cultural difference as well. "In American culture, there's this understanding that in order to be a performer, you have to be somehow original. And there's the understanding that karaoke isn't original. So you kind of have to show that you understand that; you have to create an ironic distance by hamming it up and making it funny or being über-dramatic onstage."
"American karaoke is a performance and caricature," says Erica Choi, a Korean American who lives in Buena Park. "Korean karaoke is a safe space, since private rooms shelter our insecurities and embarrassments from the outside world and protect our identity and desires."
They also become places to learn about identity: For Asian Americans who were born and raised in the United States, karaoke takes on a different meaning. It allows them to learn the language and build community. Bacareza Balance says that when she was learning Tagalog at UC Berkeley, her class would regularly go to karaoke. "That's how we practiced," she explains.
Conversely, for Asian Americans who've always felt that they weren't represented in mainstream culture, karaoke is even a way to create nostalgia for something you've never experienced. "You're creating community in a place that isn't your community," Bacareza Balance explains.
And it also helps you go back home, she adds. When she visited the Philippines as a 19-year-old, Bacareza Balance says knowing karaoke helped her socialize. "It's one of those cultural rituals that if you knew it," she says, "it helps you ease your way into being in the Philippines."
No one ever could've expected karaoke to be a great unifier or an agent of change, but as an extension of musical performance that anyone can own, it is definitely a great leveller. You could be singing Whitney Houston songs in Tokyo–or Ho Chi Minh City, Los Angeles or Paris. If it were the only way to understand our neighbors and learn to treat them with respect, it wouldn't even matter if it were off-key.