KTV in China
It is inevitable that businessmen will travel. Sometimes a businessman must be gone for long periods of time. Even overseas. When visiting a different country on business, it is very important that the businessman learn and adhere to the local customs, however disagreeable. Maybe it is the food. Maybe is it one’s mannerisms, or body language.
Sometimes one comes across a convention however, that is ethically challenging. Such is the practice of taking foreign businessmen in China to KTV. Also known as Karaoke.
Sooner or later, all foreign businessmen(and quite a few Chinese)have a story as regards the inevitable experience with KTV. I’ve had my share. KTV is an experience that almost all businessmen must endure when doing business in China, with Chinese. For many, it is a “grin and bear it” experience. For quite a few it is a welcome event. An enjoyable activity to help unwind from the days events.
What are those events? Well, it could be an early breakfast at a hotel. Followed by several factory visits in the August sun, climbing up many flights of stairs. A two hour lunch. Than negotiations. More factory visits, with yet more time spent in traffic getting from site to site. Followed by another long and winding dinner.
Than instead of going back to the hotel, one is taken to KTV for a nightcap. This is why when at KTV foreigners are often seen with briefcases. They’ve been on the road all day since morning.
There are two types of KTV. There is the boring, family type. The version where a group of friends go out together and rent a room. You can have fruit served, along with things such as watermelon juice, or a soft drink(you have to order these, they are not free). And turns are taken where all participants seriously focus on singing songs. Almost all of them are silly love songs.
KTV is an extremely important part of Chinese culture. The Chinese love to sing. If a laowai has a good voice and loves to sing as well, he will get along splendidly in China. everyone will want to invite him to
唱歌If he takes the effort to learn Chinese songs, than he’ll probably have many a girl fall in love with him(neither of the above are req’d for the latter, trust me).
I often have my staff take Chinese suppliers out for KTV and dinner. It’s a cheap way to hang out and break the ice. It’s usually quite effective. A Western meal and drinks afterward with laowai for me is far pricier than the former for my staff. It’s also far more enjoyable. When I worked for a company though it was at times difficult to expense these types of things. Especially if your boss is a hard ass that can’t even find China on the map. Chinese also use KTV as a medium for meeting the opposite sex. Thus going to KTV in China is as natural as taking a walk in the park in America.
There is another, darker side of KTV, however. This type of KTV is considered by some nothing but a brothel with “Chinese characteristics”. Yet this type of KTV is absolutely vital to the business experience in China. It helps grease the wheel. One simply cannot just do a deal in a boardroom. Not in Asia. And this is the type of KTV we laowai usually first encounter. One cannot call himself well versed in Chinese society unless he’s experienced it. This is a fact. No matter how well you speak Mandarin, or how long you’ve lived in country. Regardless of the paper you work for, etc, not experiencing KTV is leaving a big gaping hole in your knowledge base of both business customs and of the darker side of society itself. One cannot call himself whole unless he’s been to the other side.
Certainly not a full fledged China expert wannabe.
The story goes Kissinger visited China for over 30 years before he ventured onto the street for a simple walk for the first time. Well, I feel for Henry. He may have met Mao but he didn’t do KTV. Think you will see an American diplomat in a KTV? I doubt it. Especially after the Chinese Security Police entrapped a Japanese diplomat in Shanghai several years ago. How did they do it? Simple. They turned his KTV mistress. Same logic goes for the reporters of a reputable Western paper/magazine. I feel for our diplomats, and the like. They just can’t have any fun.
Us laowai businessmen usually don’t have the same constraints placed upon us. We can freely roam in and out of the dark side without repercussion. It’s understood we must play by the rules of the host. So I smugly say that until our Western China experts are indeed allowed to immerse themselves in the dark side they’ll continue to have glaring gaps in their China experience.
On the reverse side, our Chinese suppliers will find the West quite possibly boring. Not all of us live in the big city you see. We have nothing remotely comparable(or legal) to what we’ve experienced in the Heavenly Kingdom.
(You think I’m taking you to a strip club in the States? Uh-oh…..just how do I explain that to my wife? I got kids to tuck in. And I’m always home early. )
So what exactly is Chinese KTV?
One will usually go to a gaudy building with a strange name. The Moulin Rouge in Shenzhen comes to mind. From there we’ll be led to a large room with couches lining the walls in a square. The open side of the square will have a screen. This will be where the words are shown on the screen.
A drink tray will come out, with plenty of ice. Large bowls of fruit, along with Chinese snacks. It takes awhile to prepare this stuff. This isn’t why you came here.
The line of ladies will immediately start to march in, in groups of 5 or so. They will have their sexy clothes on, demurring look and all. With hands folded in front, their heads slightly bowed they will give a slight curtsy and say the region they are from. They never give their name. They will often give a number. They rarely smile, and they all have a rather subservient look on their face.
“23, from the Northeast ”.
It is here, that we laowai than know not what to do. Like a bump on a log, KTV is where we really undergo our baptism of fire. Far from home, everyone watches how we react. The wife is either at work or in the middle of her morning, chatting with friends. Maybe she is doing laundry. And you’re with a strange girl you’d never be caught dead with anywhere else. Thus there is nothing more awkward than having to pick a girl to “host you” during the evening.
The Mama San tends to interject,
“laowai like long hair”, or
“laowai like big breasted ladies”
The first time I went to a KTV was in 1996. The first time I had “seen” KTV was in 1991 in Guangzhou. My previous girlfriend in China(I’d link the post but something tells me from my views you’ve already memorized the damn thing.) took me to a restaurant where folks would sing with a microphone to music.
When I was later in Hangzhou and a KTV opened up it was a big deal, and my future wife spoke endlessly about it. Yet when I first visited a “business” KTV to my surprise I was not the only Westerner there. At the time I lived in Hong Kong but our factory was on the outskirts of Shenzhen. I worked for a Japanese company full of Hong Kong managers. It was these managers that first took me to KTV. Our Hong Kong managers worked and often lived at the factory. A few stayed off factory, the better to keep their Chinese gf’s from prying eyes.
New to the company I figured I needed to hang out more with the staff, and in no time I was doing KTV a couple times a month. So my first exposure to KTV was with the HK guys. They just went to hang out. They’d sing songs. Talk and hang out a lot with the girls, and than we’d all go back to the factory by 11pm or so. The Japanese were another story. Our factory manager was Japanese, with his estranged family in Tokyo, but with a HK girlfriend. He often got drunk and brought a girl back to the factory. Than the next morning 9am a beautiful girl would walk down from the dormitory, dressed….well, like a KTV girl, through the factory gates. We’d know she’d spent the night with our Japanese factory manager. Imagine an 8am scene with all the blue shirted young workers moving around, going to work, when a stunning lady suddenly appears dressed in black, with the heels to match, and after a moment of confusion, finds her way out the factory gate. The young front gate guards couldn’t stop staring. (nor could I)
The first time I went to KTV the HKG guys chose my girl for me. I didn’t talk to her the entire night. I was rather condescending, actually. (I had my morally indignant face on)At the end of the night, all the guys paid their chick 100 yuan. I didn’t give mine any. As we were leaving, she whined out “what about me？”, and one of our guys opened up his wallet and gave her 100 hkd. Of course, I was embarrassed by this and promptly repaid my co-worker.
It was than the Sr HKG mgr looked me in the eye and pretty much told me if I acted that way again, it would be the last time I ever hung out with them period. It was then I remembered my mission was to get to know my colleagues a bit better, not act like a hypocritical primadonna.
It can be a bit confusing to understand the language of KTV. Usually, they have a tag on their lapel, or dress, with their number on it. My experience is if the tag is on their left, they are not available to go home with you. If it is on the right, they are. The cost of going home with you of course varies from club to club. Quite often the lady will simply try and negotiate a price with her customer, as she keeps everything left over. She has to pay a flat sum to her Mama San, and she gets the rest. So the more she can negotiate above the normal rate the more she makes.
However, the Chinese supplier will arrange everything for you, if it comes to that. The laowai, unless he goes just with other laowai friends, will let his supplier host handle everything. He’ll simply ask you what you want to do, and then that’s that. Often there will be a designated “party guy” within a Chinese company that will handle these events. At the factory I’ve worked with the most, the Chairman of the company uses his older brother for such events. This may sound like a prime gig, but quite often it’s the role of the “party guy” to sound out customers, while the liquor is flowing and everyone has a girl.
KTV’s are not places where business is supposed to be discussed, but quite frankly, we did it all the time. Jackets eventually come off. Bags are eventually slung down. KTV succeeds as a prop for the next day. Talking abt the previous night quite frankly helps to alleviate the boredom of travelling from factory to factory. (they all look the same!)
It takes 2-3 hours of this before the customer will let his guard down, and it’s at that time the customer will really let the supplier know what’s on his mind. So in this regard KTV serves a vital business purpose. It’s just a more relaxed atmosphere. KTV’s do succeed in breaking the ice, and I’m sure many a relationship has been cemented over KTV. Us laowai are a bit different though. The Chinese ladies think it strange when they see us walk in, and then start working on our laptops. They really don’t know what to do. Actually, we would do this quite a bit, and it of course half of it is for show, to let our boss know we are really not into KTV(hah!), and of course when we’re in China, the US ofc is just opening, and they have needs we have to address.
Did we have people take girls back to the room? Of course. Remember the 10 Million Dollar Man? The going rate in Shenzhen was around 1200 rmb, at one time, but I’m sure it’s gone up quite a bit over the past decade. It depends upon the club. On one trip his boss joined us, and all three of us wound up in a KTV. No fool, our Sr VP of course went back to his hotel early, and my boss……did not. He stayed behind. It was a risky thing to do. In my company, that really wasn’t a big deal, because the Sr VP just didn’t care. However, what if he did? Then my boss’ days would’ve been short lived.
After choosing a girl from the lineup, she would most awkwardly sit down with you, with that shy smile. She would say “hello”, and that’s about it. However, though they lacked English speaking skills, and played the part, they were not at all shy around Westerners. Most of the ladies I spent the evening with had usually already had one if not two laowai customers throughout their careers. They would usually refuse to have have either Black or Indian customers. Indians because they “smell”, and black, well you can guess why. The legend of the Black Man even precedes him in China.
Almost all the girls preferred Taiwan or HKG customers to Mainland Chinese customers. The 大陆 customers were usually too coarse in their language and approach. As I’ve observed in an earlier post, these guys usually lack subtlety. They get drunk too quickly, and aren’t very charming. They grow abusive. The girls thus often would refuse to go home with their client. (they could get one later in the evening)
But to be fair, I’ve seen the same thing with the ladies as well. One Chinese New Year a factory I was working with all went out to KTV to celebrate. The factory VP was even there. Must have been 15 guys. Not 5 minutes after we sit down one of the ladies starts stripping down….for a fee. All the guys gave tips. Real whorish behavior if you ask me. She did not, however, take everything off. She stripped down to the bare essentials.
Sometimes I’d get bored speaking with the ladies and just try and converse in English to entertain myself. The problem with meeting a Chinese for the first time is they all have questions once they realize you speak Chinese. And their always the same questions.
I’d usually choose a lady with long hair to hang out with me. They’d sit down next to you, place their hand on your thigh, and offer you fruit. She’d make sure your glass was filled, and that you always had ice. More often than not I’d be called upon to translate for my coworkers. This would keep me quite busy, but when my boss was around, I was a willing sycophant.
We’d often try and get our ladies drunk. We’d play dice games. Of course, what a lot of our guys didn’t realize until they themselves are on the floor is that these babes play games every night! The down side of KTV in my view was the smarter ones realized quickly that drinking for a few hours a night sure beats working in a factory 12-14 hrs a day. The ladies came from all areas, and walks of life. Almost always from the countryside, and almost always with no or little sexual experience. I met them as young as 17, and a few I believed it when they said they were new to Shenzhen and were virgins.
The ladies all would give the same spiel: this is my first KTV, and my first week(or month) on the job. (Innocence being part of the attraction) Though I did have one admit she had sex every night. These ladies all give the same story, ie my family needs the money, or my mom is sick, or more likely, I just want to go back home and buy a house. There is no moral dilemma involved here. It is a cold, economic decision to make as much money as quickly as possible. The going rate today is still 200 yuan just to hang out with you for a couple of hours.(though I’ve heard it’s 400 in some places) That’s 6000 rmb a month right there. And if she brings home 1000 rmb 10 nights a month, that’s all gravy.
Eventually, one tires of KTV in China(except the Chinese and the Koreans). Like receiving flattery all the time while there, it is extremely awkward at first, than one likes it, followed by a distaste for the practice.
The problem is some folks never tire of it. Those are the bad businessmen. They come to China for the wrong reasons. To get away from their wife, not to do business. They come for 7 days, and go out every night. Even bring back 2 girls! And than nothing gets done. And the Head Ofc wonders why?
And for the girls? I do not think I exaggerate when I mention that alot of the pretty girls in China are unobtainable. They are either kept, looking for a rich boyfriend, or are KTV girls.
The KTV girl will eventually go home with her coin, marry a guy from her hometown, and give a lot of her money (that she earned from a factory or from “business”) to her parents. No one, (husband？) will be any the wiser. There are a lot of women in China with secrets. Most of them are KTV girls.