Karaoke Machines and Asian Pop Stars on the Prairies

 

In the early 1990s, I was in mainstream public elementary school in Calgary during the week. On the weekends, I was a student at the Calgary Chinese Public School in Chinatown. At the time, my father co-owned a Chinese restaurant. There were days and nights when I spent time in the manager’s office behind the reception counter after climbing a set of stairs from the street-level entrance. There, I worked on homework and played with office supplies.

On nights when there was karaoke and dancing, I sometimes got to peek out and watch as the evening progressed. In the darkened room, above a sea of heads belonging to diners, a projection screen was lowered. It hung from the ceiling just in front of the service bar that separated the dining room from the kitchen.

A karaoke hostess was hired on a weekly basis to lead the crowd in rounds of singing. The karaoke machine stood on top of a black, wooden cabinet. The hostess handed out the binders of songs to choose from. When someone in the audience had their turn, she opened the cabinet and selected a 12-inch, shiny laserdisc. As each restaurant guest took a turn at the microphone, music videos played on the projection screen.

One evening, a restaurant guest sang a particularly emotion-filled song, and the projection screen showed a music video that remains in my memory, though I do not remember what song it was or who performed in the music video. On the screen, a woman appeared to float in a landscape of darkened clouds as she walked among Asian male angels or ballet dancers. They stood at attention, their wings folded back and their muscular upper torsos exposed.

I think that was when my love of Asian music and pop culture began.

photo showing a group of people singing karaoke

Tcang Tchou Karaoke Lounge (installation) by Karen Tam

Over the years, from that time at the restaurant to the age I am now, in my late 30s, I have returned again and again to the music and musicians who made their names in Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s. It began with the music on the karaoke discs, but eventually led to music broadcasted on Fairchild Radio and discs borrowed from the public library, which had built up a collection of music in various languages and from different parts of the world. I have also bought my own CDs from Chinatown in Calgary, CDs filled with songs performed by musicians I learned about during junior high school when some friends collected trading cards of Hong Kong pop stars.

As I write this essay, I am listening to the songs of celebrated Hong Kong pop star Alan Tam, who was very popular in the 80s. I am trying to choose just one of his songs to play on the radio show I host on CJSW 90.9 FM, the radio station at the University of Calgary. I listen to Alan Tam regularly at home, but have yet to play any of his songs on the radio show. As I listen to his music now, I feel many different things.

The music, film, and television created in Hong Kong leading up to the handover to China in 1997 is a significant part of the cultural legacy of Hong Kong—and also has personal meaning to me. My family is from Guangdong, China, but my dad lived in Hong Kong before arriving in Canada, where I was born. My parents focused on work and had little time or money take us kids back to Hong Kong, so it was through music and television that I stayed connected to a place and culture that I felt drawn to as I went to high school and post-secondary school in Calgary and as I focused on becoming a writer and journalist.

After YouTube launched in 2005, the platform quickly became a place to view many of the Asian pop stars I had grown to love through music videos, karaoke videos, and concert footage. Since that time, the pop music and media industry has drastically changed in Hong Kong and China, with new artists promoted every year on new digital platforms. But I return to the same musicians again and again. Along with Alan Tam, I often listen to Faye Wong, Sandy Lam, and the late Leslie Cheung. When listening to pop music of the former British colony, and I feel a nostalgia I cannot quite explain.

Even now that I can easily access the music online, I have kept the discs, the ones I purchased in Chinatown, as well as the old 12-inch karaoke discs that remain in the black cabinet along with the karaoke machine in the basement of my home. I don’t know what will happen to the karaoke machine. The laserdisc format did not gain widespread popularity in North America; in Japan the company Pioneer bought the technology and manufactured the machines for home and restaurant use in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. With the introduction of the DVD in 2001, the 12-inch laserdisc became less appealing. Over the years, it has become difficult to service the older equipment. Until our old karaoke machine is somehow repaired, the discs will stay inside the cabinet and serve as a reminder of the music of my childhood and where those late nights led me.

My father owned the restaurant for only a few years, and I would eventually leave Chinese school, as I had to focus on credit courses in mainstream public school. In university, I took one class in Mandarin for beginners. It was—and continues to be—through television, music videos with Chinese subtitles, and karaoke videos that I have kept up my reading comprehension and listening skills in Cantonese and Mandarin.

While attending journalism school in the mid-2000s, however, I found myself part of the art and culture scene in Calgary. I became involved with CJSW radio and went to spoken-word poetry events to record them for broadcast. I became a host on the feminist radio program “Yeah, What She Said,” which lead me to attend and cover Take Back the Night marches. I also volunteered for music festivals, signing up to be a venue manager.

I sometimes sing karaoke, too, but not very often. When I do sing, I usually choose “Heart of Glass” by Blondie or “Don’t Speak” by No Doubt. I have also sung songs by Shania Twain. After all this time, I do not have the confidence to sing in Chinese. But whenever I want, I can take out the 12-inch karaoke discs, search for the songs online, and practice.

Jeanne Kwong

About Jeanne Kwong

Jeanne Kwong hosts Artslink, a radio program on performing & visual arts and everyday creativity at CJSW Radio in Calgary. She has a BA in English from Mount Royal University. She is involved in community work in her hometown of Calgary, participates in the online book community, and blogs about her reading.

About Karen Tam

Karen Tam is a Montréal-based artist whose research focuses on the constructions and imaginations of "ethnic" spaces through installations in which she recreates Chinese restaurants, karaoke lounges, opium dens, curio shops, and other sites of cultural encounters. She has exhibited her work and participated in residencies in North America, Europe, and China, and has received grants and fellowships from the Canada Council for the Arts, Conseil des arts du Québec, and Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada. Karen holds an MFA in Sculpture (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and a PhD in Cultural Studies (Goldsmiths, University of London). Her work is in museum and corporate collections such as the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, Collection Hydro-Québec, Collection Royal Bank of Canada, Microsoft Art Collection, and in private collections in Canada, United States, and United Kingdom. She is represented by Galerie Hugues Charbonneau. See her website and Instagram page.

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