It’s odd to grow accustomed to rickshaw travel: the fresh air, the cruising under the night sky just a little buzzed after a stop at Shantou’s finest wine bar where elbows were rubbed against those of the budding bourgeois. Sometimes I think of the rickshaw as a time machine, transporting me back to a moment when the triangular straw hats and tattered short pants of the driver were no less obsolete than… rickshaws. Despite the allure, I think I’m witnessing the last days of rickshaw culture here in Shantou. Traffic is getting a little too car oriented and I can’t imagine this mode of travel making it very long in such a fast growing city. There are other bits of local culture in Shantou, however, that seem perfectly safe for the forseeable future, and one of those was exactly what I set out to explore on the back of my rickshaw last Saturday night.
All my local friends have assured me that KTV, or karaoke, is the best time to be had in Shantou. In my mind a karaoke bar is a big open room where people get sloppy drunk and sing their favorite Credence, their least favorite Fine Young Canibals or their hopeless renditions of Queen (which always begins seriously but quickly, upon coming to the realization that nobody can really sing those high notes, become hopeless), as friends berate their lack of vocal prowess, and at the end of the night everyone’s that much more certain of the fact that they made the right choice in giving up their operatic aspirations and going back to whatever tone deaf, sobriety laden occupation keeps them busy on weekdays.
But that is not this karaoke bar. ‘Bar’ is really not the applicable term. It’s a palace, reminiscent of the home of a Suadi Prince who fell in love with a Vegas based interior decorator. It’s divided into hundreds of private rooms like a hotel. These private rooms line the neon and mirror filled mazes of hallways on floor after floor of closed doors, the gentle whiff of John Denver or the Carpenters slipping from under the threshold.
I wanted in. KTV is supposedly a Shantou delicacy (though that seems to be the claim no matter where you go in Southeast Asia), and I wanted a big fat bite of some local culture that wasn’t coated in MSG (I love my MSG, but too much is too much). Alas, we, myself and three other Americans, were led down one of the long magical hallways and into our own private room. The room was ours for the night at 300RMB (about 50 USD) and came complete with 30 cans of Budweiser. There was even a bathroom in our room, which meant that for the next six hours or so, we had no reason to exit our private salon.
We turned on the machine to look through the song list. Chinese… Chinese… Chinese… Chinese… What’s this here “three little Indians.” In case you don’t recall your primary education in the days of zero cultural sensitivity that is the song that goes a little something like, “one little, two little, three little Indians, four little, five little, six little Indians, seven little, eight little, nine little Indians, ten little Indian boys.” Over and over again. And that was it. That was our English selection. Well, that and a couple of Avril tunes.
It was just as the confusion of the one-English-song karaoke machine was wearing off that the tray of six assorted varieties of chicken feet was brought in, and we were all forced to acknowledge that the next three hours, or however long it was going to take us to finish those 30 beers and six trays of feet, and we were determined to finish them, were going to be very long hours. Not so much because of the short song supply, or even the chicken feet, but mostly because we were going to be stuck with each other in a confined space with little to no odds of meeting new friends, girls, practicing Chinese… In short, all of the reasons that I go to a bar were locked away in identical, tantalizingly closed-off worlds, spread around this massive karaoke palace as if it were the honey-comb universe of Quantum Leap and I was Scott Bakula.
Ultimately, we were forced to breach the force field of the vigilant hallway security team by doing a sort of, ‘I’m just standing in the hall whistling and leaning… doing some fresh air… taken a break from the little Indian song…’ charade, and darting into random rooms as soon as security’s heads were turned. No one was fooled except perhaps us in assuming that they cared if we entered random rooms, but too much Budweiser mixed with the giddiness of four quasi-grown men thrown into what felt like grade school sleepover conditions, led to a little bit of make-believing. To us, these forays into the unfamiliar rooms were bona fide adventures.
Once inside, we were greeted with more Budweiser and chicken feet, and Chinese songs being calmly, sweetly sung amongst mostly sober friends who were caught just a little off guard by the beer filled, socially starved Americans who had sabotaged their gathering.
By chance, on one of our clandestine missions into unknown territories we stumbled upon a couple of Chinese friends from work, and they came back to our room to get a little taste of what American karaoke was like. They told us that the spicy bird feet were good luck. I picked one up and asked if you were supposed to rub it, like a rabbits foot, our eat it for luck, but they didn’t seem to follow. I ate it, but then decided to name it Rub to be sure I was respecting both of our traditions.
It was time for Avril, and lets just say the gods of rock would have been pleased with the show we put on… The Chinese fan of karaoke on the other hand…
There was some fundamental misunderstanding here about the meaning of Karaoke, and beyond that about the meaning of going out. While it seemed that the patrons were fully attempting to create a barrier between their own group of friends and the outside world, that idea was the height of undesirable to my mind. I was going ‘out,’ after all, not staying ‘in.’ And yet, here I’d gone ‘out,’ just to end up being locked ‘in,’ and I’d ended up acting like my friends parents had gone to sleep and we had to sneak out of his room, and down to the pantry to steal more Poptarts.
I am not intending to make any judgments about who was wrong and who was right here. Actually, I’m pretty sure that if I were to make any they would not be in my favor. Among other things, I realized that my sense of social is completely distorted. I don’t claim to speak for Americans by any means, but I think that I have witnessed in many Americans (or maybe I’m projecting) a fear of intimacy that precludes the kind of deep friendship that most of us crave. Mostly, I spent a night being extremely immature, sneaking about like an interdemensional hopper from a crap sci-fi program, and shotgunning cans of beer like I haven’t since the last time I was in Indiana (long story), because the idea of being in a quiet room with three friends and no distractions (chicken feet and children’s songs excluded) made me quite anxious. But, I’m not going to be too hard on me. It was a pretty good time.
But, it’s true that intimacy is something other than what it used to be (or at least what I used to think it was supposed to be), no? We (I) are more self-absorbed in all the best and worst ways than I thought we (I) were. We don’t think of relationships in terms of self-sacrifice for the preservation of tradition, family, etc…, which as far as I can tell are still very much a part of Chinese society. For better or worse, I think I see relationships almost like the various rooms in this karaoke palace; we spend a lifetime wandering from one to another, learning the lyrics to Raffi, Green Day, Johnny Cash, Nina Simone and finally, morbidly humming the tune to some Requiem all alone, watching for the door handle to jiggle when the white gloved waiter walks in with the bill.
I’m thinking of friends who’ve said to me after particularly hard break-ups, “well, I guess you two had learned what you needed from one another.” After which I nod my head in agreement. On to the next room. Even serious relationships (and I am including friendships) lack intimacy when you expect them to end, when you remove the possibility of their being, for lack of a better word, eternal.
And, maybe, this makes relationships potentially stonger, more realistic, someohow more intimate in the acceptance of the joint limitedness of their partakers. But, usually it just taps into our insecurities and makes us avert our eyes, maybe drink faster, wish that Rickshaws didn’t have to go out of style instead of listening to the person who is sitting next to us in one, pretend that you are in an episode of Quantum Leap instead of taking advantage of some time with friends… Maybe it’s just me.
On the way out of the karaoke palace, we were all just a little bit wobbly, and in quick need of a rickshaw back home, potentially making a stop for some barbeque to reconcile the Budweiser and bird feet churning in our stomachs. There were, however, no rickshaws to be found. The rickshaw drivers, it would seem, had gone on strike at some point between 10pm and 3am. Maybe we would be seeing the end of that relic sooner than I thought. It looked like rather than cruising home pretending to be on the back of a very lo-fi time machine, we would be walking down the long road that passed Wu’s sweater shop. But atleast we were finally ‘out.’