Al Sandiego discovers the cult of karaoke
06.11.2009 - 06.12.2009
I always find it interesting meeting and getting to know Chinese people from other countries. While we all share a common ancestral homeland, culture, and certain traditions, we are also the products of the countries in which we were born and raised. Having just come from Malaysia where the Chinese community is quite large and visible, I wasn’t sure what to expect here in Indonesia. I had heard and read things over the years, and last summer while in Beijing for the Olympics I spent an afternoon with a Chinese Indonesian woman who is a friend of my cousin and his wife. She told me that she had to learn Mandarin once she arrived in Beijing (her American husband also works at the U.S. Embassy) because she never studied it during her childhood in Jakarta. It wasn’t a matter of her not being interested. She and all of the ethnic Chinese in the entire country were officially banned from even speaking it during the years under the Soeharto regime.
In the lobby of the J.W. Marriott I had passed small groups of people whom I’m sure were of Chinese descent but were speaking Bahasa Indonesia. I spotted more on the streets and in the restaurants where we ate. They seemed to be fully integrated in Indonesian society, whereas the Chinese in Malaysia generally seemed to segregate themselves. On Thursday evening, I met with two representatives from the Jakarta office of M., a large multinational corporation that has been assisting Atlas with sourcing, logistics, etc. I had been referred to them by the head of M.’s U.S. office just a week or so before I departed Seattle. It turns out that these two had flown up to Medan just to meet me and introduce me to several exporters.
That evening we had dinner at a very nice Chinese restaurant with the son and daughter-in-law of the owner of the largest coffee exporter in all of Sumatra. One of their employees was there as well. All six of us at the table were Chinese and eating Chinese food, yet speaking in English. The next day the two guys from Jakarta took me to visit three exporters, the first one being the one who had hosted us for dinner the previous evening. We spent a couple of hours there, first cupping coffees processed four different ways (fully washed, semi-washed, natural, and unwashed) and then seeing the milling operations.
From there we went to a smaller exporter whose facility was practically empty. The owner, a man in his 50s, seemed to know quite a bit of English but was more comfortable using Bahasa Indonesia and Mandarin. So I managed to communicate using Mandarin even though my proficiency is probably at a second grader’s level. He took us out to lunch at a Japanese restaurant inside the Cambridge Plaza, which is the fanciest shopping mall in Medan. Fancy, indeed! I ended up getting chirashi zushi which is what I normally order at Japanese restaurants in the U.S., but while I was eating it I began to question the wisdom of ordering raw fish in a developing country. I hadn’t given it any thought when I ordered, yet I pictured myself getting stricken with a bad case of food poisoning and having to cancel the trip to the Gayo Highlands. Fortunately nothing happened and my mostly strong intestinal system prevailed once again.
The last visit of the day was with yet two more ethnic Chinese exporters, one of whom is based in Jakarta. We did a quick cupping and the obligatory warehouse tour, but the entire time I feared what might come later that evening. The exporter from Jakarta had invited us to dinner at an informal restaurant specializing in seafood. I had been forewarned about him, his fondness for whiskey, and his tendency to push the whiskey on others. My guides promised to shield me from any uncomfortable situations, especially since I had a 7am flight the next morning. The dinner itself was great. I was served a grilled prawn so big that I thought it was a lobster. I ate an entire deep-fried pomfret fish, bones and all. I drank the refreshing liquid from a huge coconut and squeezed some lime juice into it.
What happened after dinner was definitely one of the most bizarre experiences of my entire life. My understanding was that we were going somewhere to have a drink, so I had a hotel bar in mind. We were driven to a different neighborhood and parked in front of an old building constructed during the Dutch colonial era. There were heavy, dark curtains on the windows so I couldn’t tell what it was. After we walked inside, the first thing I noticed was the colored lighting: very dim, but I recall a deep shade of red that was almost purple. We walked down a narrow hallway on the first floor, turned a corner, and then came to a staircase. At the top of the staircase was a hostess station staffed by two women in very short skirts and a man. One of the women seemed to recognize our host and immediately swiped a card that granted us access to the second-floor. Down another narrow hallway with black walls and doors, each with an electronic keypad mounted next to it. I started to wonder what was happening behind each of those doors. Was it a private strip show? On the flight from Seattle to Tokyo I watched the movie “Taken,” starring Liam Neeson as the father of high school-aged girl who gets abducted in Paris and sold into a sex slave ring. In one scene there are extremely wealthy men bidding on the daughter (who’s been drugged so that she doesn’t fully understand what’s going on), each one sitting in a darkened glass enclosure and pressing a button to place a bid. I thought of this scene as we were walking down these hallways.
Finally we stopped in front of a doorway and, with another quick swipe of the magical card, were shown insde. One of the other exporters with whom we had met in the third visit was already there with two younger women. It was a private karaoke lounge, and one of the women was singing along to a song in Bahasa Indonesia. I laughed. Mind you, I’d tried karaoke only once before in my entire life, and that was at a Mexican restaurant in Lower Queen Anne when I unsuccessfully tried singing along to Mana but ended up mouthing the words because I couldn’t remember the exact lyrics. But I never had personally seen karaoke like this, with a huge screen, a full menu of songs in multiple languages, and an enormous sound system.
I had promised myself that I would stay for no more than one hour. Magically two bottles of whiskey appeared, one being Johnnie Walker Blue Label. I can’t remember the other, but something liked MacLellan’s. I was asked to sample both and choose the one I liked better, and I ended up taking both glasses. Drink in hand, I started looking at the sub-menu of songs in English and felt bold enough to try my hand (well, voice) at “Summer of ‘69” which had been my favorite song during the summer of 1985. I knew the lyrics well, but Bryan Adams’ voice is at a higher register that mine won’t reach without straining. Plus I don’t sing well if there’s no one else with whom to sing.
The Jakarta-based exporter turned out to be quite good, even at his age, so we agreed to do Sinatra’s “My Way” together. I have only one CD but am a pretty big fan of Frank and can do a mean rendition of “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” (just ask my former co-dwellers of Da Lower Mezz , aka the basement office at the old Alterra HQ). As much as I think I suck, I actually sang much better than I thought I could (again, it makes all the difference when I can match my voice with someone else’s). We got a huge applause from the three women in the room. Feeling flush with my sudden vocal prowess, I was ready for something more of my era. I picked Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name,” and together with the assistant manager of M. we whipped out the air guitars and invisible drum sets and rocked that private karaoke lounge.
By this time I had passed my self-imposed one-hour limit. I wasn’t ready to hand over the mike, though…my flirtation with a singing career wasn’t quite done. Someone suggested The Beatles, and I persuaded everyone to do “Twist & Shout” which is probably the most un-Beatles song in their entire repertoire. Of course, I knew it best from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” having watched that 80s cult classic at least 75 times (I kid you not…”I’m very cute, and I’m very alone, and I don’t want my body to be violated in any way! Speak any English?!”). I threw in the back-up vocals and for good measure ended the song with a kick like Matthew Broderick does in the movie. Or that’s how I seem to remember it.
We were out of there by 10pm, and as I walked through the eerily familiar hallways of the club I felt a new appreciation for karaoke. It indeed is a lot of fun. You don’t even have to be drunk to enjoy it. I had consumed three small glasses of whiskey and barely felt the effects. Too bad that karaoke has become synonymous with seedy bars populated by lonely men and trashy women. While I wait for it to come back into fashion, I will need to take some singing lessons with my future brother-in-law, Justin, a classically-trained baritone. So watch out!