The room flashes from green to blue, and from blue to red, as Chinese lyrics appear on a flat screen TV. “You are boys, so you go first,” Rae Ming, an 18-year-old ESL student at the University of Regina, laughingly tells her friends. They shrug off her request and Ming grabs the red microphone, her friend, Lorraine Liu, also 18, grabbing the yellow one, and they begin to sing a love song.
Ming is a regular, and likes to bring her friends to SweeTea Cafe, a karaoke bar that opened on Victoria Avenue in August. It is the second of two karaoke bars in Regina — Young Karaoke on Albert Street opened first in 2010 — that offers people a private karaoke experience.
“In the west, you have a bigger house. It’s independent, so you can sing in your house. You can have a band if you want. You can play guitar loudly,” said Ming. “But in China, we live in apartments. We have neighbours. We can’t do that. We influence other people. It is like this closed room is just for us to relax — and be crazy.”
Ming, who began singing karaoke in Grade 8 in Shenzhen, China, says any time she had time off from school she would go sing. Having been to SweeTea Cafe four times since starting her ESL program in the fall of 2014, she says the experience isn’t quite the same as back home.
“The karaoke in our hometown is half the size of Cornwall [shopping mall] — just one karaoke bar. But we have a lot. Anywhere you go, you can find karaoke bars, and it’s cheaper, much cheaper,” she said.
Depending on the karaoke bar and the city it’s in, one hour of singing in China can cost an equivalent of between $3 to $10 in the afternoon, and $16 to $60 and higher at night, she said.
At SweeTea Cafe, there are two rooms available: a small room for up to six people at $30 an hour, and a large room for up to 12 people at $60 an hour.
Despite this price hike in comparison to karaoke bars in China, roughly 50 people go to SweeTea Cafe every weekend, says Brady Wang, who works at the business that was established by a U of R graduate from the country.
Wangs says when he began working at SweeTea five months ago, only ESL students, and CBCs (Chinese-born Canadians), went there to sing. “Asians love karaoke so much . . . It’s one of our Asian stereotypes, but it’s a good one,” he said. “As time went on, white guys started to love [this style of] karaoke.”
Today it is half Asians, and half Caucasians — and not just groups of friends, but families, too — that go there, he says. He added that many of the Caucasian people who go to sing at SweeTea Cafe, which offers songs in English, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese, are being invited by their Asian friends.
“I’m not a person who likes to sing, but it’s more like a party, especially in China because at most karaoke bars, we drink — not water,” said Ming’s friend, Jacob Lee, 23, as he points to the water pitcher on the table in front of him and his friends.
While karaoke bars half the size of malls opening up in Regina is unlikely, as more people become interested in karaoke, it may become the party Lee describes it as.
From the days of singing karaoke at Barts on Broad and at the Plains Hotel 20 years ago, people today can be seen singing, and already drinking beers at more than eight venues in Regina, including O’Hanlons and Crown & Hand, says Zubazz, 38, a local karaoke fanatic and host.
“Karaoke makes people feel good. The good feelings have spread because more people want their friends to try it and feel what they are feeling,” he said, adding that Regina becoming a multicultural city has only increased people’s interest in karaoke. “Bar owners [also] don’t want to pay full prices for bands, so karaoke is a cheaper alternative.”
Karaoke at the several bars throughout Regina is also free, he added.
For those that are too shy to sing in front of crowds at these bars, or that don’t get a thrill out of watching people sing in front of these crowds, Zubazz says karaoke bars like SweeTea Cafe are enabling people to enjoy the activity, and be their own star, in their own niche.