Yunnie Li is enjoying a well-earned spring vacation in China with her family. As the owner of SweeTea Cafe KTV in Regina, this is one of the few breaks she’s ever had from her work in years. Next month when she comes back, her KTV is going to undergo a complete system update.
KTV stands for Karaoke TV, a Chinese style karaoke evolved from the model invented late last century. In a typical Chinese KTV, there are usually several rooms equipped with screens, couches and a small table. A big screen in front of the couch shows images and lyrics and a smaller touch-screen machine by the couch provides songs to choose.
Li was planning to change the system update schedule from three times a year to weekly or monthly, because she knew the importance of keeping the system up to date based on her own experience.
When she first came to Regina in 2010, Li tried to find a local karaoke that she could regularly go to.
“I'm really addicted to the karaoke. Before I came to Regina I usually go to karaoke place in China like almost once a week,” she said. “But the thing is, once I in Regina, I (couldn’t) find a place.”
Li said the karaoke in Regina and Saskatoon at that time still used an old system and she had to select the songs which were outdated on a key pad: “They only have the old songs, like really, really old, like the songs are like…10 years before or even like 20 years before.”
The idea of opening a Chinese KTV has evolved since then. After graduating from the University of Regina with her business degree, Li started looking for a perfect location for her own store.
“It's really hard to find a nice place in Regina for business like a karaoke…we started from finding a place near the university but I (couldn’t) find it,” she said. “We also need(ed) a place that can have (temporary) alcohol license (for special events).”
Eventually Li chose Victoria Avenue, which she believed had the most traffic from east to west across the city. The strategy was to ensure their logo was seen when people drive by everyday and leave a positive impression. She made the right choice, the four rooms and a hall in the KTV, with the prices ranging from $30 to $60 an hour, are fully booked every weekend.
“Usually (when) people want to reserve a room for weekends, they have to reserve it maybe a few days before, because sometimes we are out of rooms,” she said.
Apart from karaoke, SweeTea Cafe also lures people in with Chinese street snacks and bubble tea. Different from the slushy kind, Li said the ones in her KTV are authentic Taiwanese style, and she uses powdered milk instead of coffee whitener to add dairy flavour.
The choice of drinks and snacks on the menu all follow Li’s simple golden rule: if she was to sell the food and drinks to others, she had to like them first.
Since opening in 2014, the KTV had built a solid relationship with the local Chinese community.
According to Yandi Zhu, an engineering student who came to Regina two years ago, 80 per cent of the Chinese students she knows have been to SweeTea Cafe, and most of them heard of it from friends when they first arrived.
Almost half of the customers were university students, said Li. To serve her customers better, she created an online chatting group with local Chinese immigrants and international students to discuss what new songs they would like to include in the karaoke system. In the past two years, she co-organized two Karaoke Star singing competitions with a local Chinese organization, where hundreds of people participated in and the winner got a prize of $800.
Zhu, who went to SweeTea Cafe every week last summer, admitted the KTV has a special place in her heart.
Li says even though she is enjoying her vacation in China, she is already missing Regina and her KTV. “This idea start(ed) from my hobby, because I love it,” she said.
“A lot of people don't know what they want. I know what I want.”