1992 / 3月
Wei Hung-chin /photos courtesy of Diago Chiu /tr. by Phil Newell
Do you know that in Taiwan not only is it necessary to go to "cram school" to prepare for the college entrance examinations, but some people even go to supplementary classes asking the teacher to instruct them in karaoke? And the number is far from small!
Yen Sheng-hsien is a computer sales engineer. His life has recently been changed not, however, by computers, nor even by that woman behind every successful man, but rather by a currently popular newly rising industry, "karaoke supplementary school!"
Is It a Crime to Sing Badly? Yen Sheng-hsien is by nature not very musical. After an experience failing in singing before a crowd at the age of seven, he has not dared to get up on stage for the last thirty years. "Because I sang so badly, I was pulled right off the stage that time," he says, still slightly tremulously, recalling that terrifying experience.
However, in recent years karaoke has become tremendously popular. It is thus often necessary to "win friends over with song" at social occasions, and someone like him in the service industry especially can't avoid it. After some internal struggle, he decided to break through his unwillingness to get back "on the stage," and he signed up for a "Karaoke Singing Accelerated Class." After two weeks of training, he could calmly sing in front of everyone, not only entertaining others, but making himself happy in the process.
This may sound a bit like a myth, but the story is true. In Taiwan, you not only have to go to supplementary school if you didn't do well in English or math, you also have to bone up if you can't sing well. And the supplementary schools which offer this class are doing booming business!
The "karaoke singing accelerated class" begun by the Pi Shih Company in the Chungshan district of Taipei is the classic example of the trend of popularity of "karaoke supplementary school."
Everybody Join In!: The backgrounds of the students at Pi Shih are very broad, and the motives for attending are far from uniform. There is a company executive who needs to socialize; there are office workers and yuppies who have come to build up their courage and self-esteem; there are wealthy housewives coming to kill some time; and there are wannabe stars of tomorrow who plan to enter singing competitions. But their motives have one thing in common-to-sing karaoke well! Although tuition is as high as NT$1000 per hour if you choose one-on-one classes, the students just keep on coming, and there are people taking class all day every day.
Moreover, the classes like those started up by institutions like the Young Women's Christian Association or the Wei-Chuan Cultural Educational Foundation have adopted medium and large size classes because tuition is relatively low, so they have attracted even more people. "In one term we have nine classes, with two hundred-plus students," explains Kissy Chen, a staffer at the YWCA.
Market demand this broad is a product of Taiwan's KTV culture. In the past few years KTV has become the mainstream of popular leisure culture, and the streets are lined with KTV centers, and they are the main locales for get-togethers and drinking parties. Want to talk business? Go to KTV. A birthday party? Go to KTV! Want to lose your worries? Of course--go to KTV! Even high-brow types can't be caught without learning a few of the more popular tunes in order to meet the occasional need. Taiwan Province Governor Lien Chan's "Drink a Glass," and Minister of Economic Affairs Hsiao Wan-chang's "Thoughts on a Moonlit Eve" have all moved the people who have heard of them.
KTV (karaoke plus video) has already become a "national pastime." Anyone who can't at least get up and belt out a few numbers is, to use an expression popular among young people, "out of it."
Finding Your Own Singing Range: Karaoke singing training classes have risen in the wake of the flourishing of KTV these past two years. Some say they have spread from the south and center of Taiwan, some see them as just the singing classes that have always existed in a new guise. Some go so far as to claim they are nothing but a promotional gimmick pushed by KTV operators trying to compete. The various theories have little in common, but one thing you can be sure of is that the market looks very promising. One well-known newspaper publisher has recently made a plan to enter the fray and start a class.
What mysterious spells are weaved in a karaoke class that can give eyesight to the musically blind, and thus find such popularity in the marketplace?
Usually, the ordinary karaoke class does not use orthodox music instruction methods. They mostly teach the students to sing right off the bat, mastering one song at a time. Pi Shih has thousands of Chinese and foreign songs divided up into categories according to the occasions for which they might be needed, the sentiment of the song, individual personalities, range, profession, and so on. Each individual student selects ten or so tunes to be taught. For example, at political gatherings, songs like "The Old Hometown at Dusk" or "You Can Only Win If You Love to Suffer" are frequently selected--naturally it is best for politicians if they can croon. Or if your voice is not high enough, of course it would be a mistake to choose Chang Ching-fang's "After the Passion is Past," while some of the older tunes in a lower range might be more appropriate. Or if you want to woo your girlfriend, if you choose "Taxi Dancer," not only won't the words fit the theme, you might even get yourself a knock on the head. "If you choose correctly according to these guidelines, and devote yourself to practicing them until you get them right, then you can probably cope with any relevant occasion," says Pi Shih Director Feng Yung-tsun.
The karaoke class at the Wei Chuan Cultural Educational Foundation also teaches with the song by song instruction method, but because the foundation hires specialized music teachers, they often get into sheet music or scratch the surface of music theory in class, bringing students even deeper into the joyous world of music.
A Class to Transcend Class: Karaoke singing training classes began to get attention in 1990. In the middle of that year the Harvard Management Consulting Company held a one semester "Management Karaoke Training Seminar." The students in the class included well-known figures from the business world, and they all felt after completing the training that this sort of activity was quite entertaining, and expressed the desire to hold more. Consequently the Republic of China Small and Medium Entrepreneurs Association followed up with its "Chairman of the Board Karaoke Training Seminar," getting an even stronger response. Industrial leaders like Li Cheng-chia, general manager of Mei Wu Fa Enterprises, and Richard Wu, general manager of Kingtel Telecommunication Corp., took the class and came out with the feeling that they gained a lot.
Take the case of Li Cheng-chia: After completing the training, he felt that there was even greater interaction and relations between himself and his employees "because it sounds better if you sing it than if you say it." He says that in the past, because he did not sing well, he dared not get up on the stage, and missed a lot of opportunities to share entertainment with and grow closer to his employees. "A boss who just sits there stone-faced all day will affect the morale of the employees," he points out with a laugh.
Unlike the entrepreneurs who are most concerned about the requirements of socializing, some people simply want to add some spice to their lives, so they attend the karaoke class. Fan Cheng-chiang, Lin Yue-kuan, Su Hsien-cha, and others who go to karaoke class at the YWCA are this way.
Karaoke Can Cure Illness: Fan Cheng-chiang's husband is a civil servant and her three children are all grown. Usually her husband and children are out doing things, and it was really depressing being alone in the house. Lately she's been having trouble with her heart, and, under her doctor's advice, she decided to exercise her body and get some stimulation through singing. "The doctor says that singing to bring a change of mood is good for heart problems," she explains. After participating in karaoke classes for two years, she felt, as expected, much improved. And besides better health, she has had other incidental benefits, such as being able to easily deal with those times when it is necessary to sing when accompanying her husband to job-related "social" gatherings. "This way I'm not treated like just a decorative wife," she says intriguingly.
Says 62-year-old Lin Yue-kuan delicately: "If you sing often when you're older, you won't become senile." In the past, she often played the stock maket, but now she "concentrates on singing."
Now 71, retired teacher Su Hsien-cha expresses even more fully the sentiments of this group of "old students," whose average age is 61: "The main purpose of everybody in coming here is to live more happily and make a few new friends." You can often see a group of ladies coming and going with their friends, having a grand old time.
As opposed to the socializing goals of the "executive class" karaoke instruction or the recreational function of the YWCA karaoke class, most karaoke classes stress recruitment of students who seem capable of learning to "be in control in style, and to sing pleasingly." Feng Yung-tsun stresses that, using their "specialized," "one-on-one" instructional method, after completing study it is guaranteed that the person will "perform to expectations" when getting up to sing. Lin Shih-yang, a high-ranking manager in the sales department of the Cathay Insurance Company, points out from his own experience that in the past, when he came across occasions to get together with coworkers, he would feel out of place and uncomfortable when he saw coworkers getting up to sing one after the other while he just set offstage. After going through karaoke training, he is now suddenly a fair-to-middling singer, and can "get in with the crowd and have fun with everybody," he says rather contentedly. He has gotten his money's worth out of the NT$10,000-plus tuition fee, and he even wants to bring his wife along to learn, too!
A Young Forty: It's a natural human instinct to love singing. Although some criticize Taiwan's KTV culture as being vulgar, and there are even more people who loudly complain that you have to go to supplementary school even for karaoke, for the vast majority of those who love to sing, whatever the cost in time and money, it's worth it for that moment of joy of singing a song well, and soaking up the sounds of applause.
Wednesday morning is when the YWCA "Japanese Language Karaoke Class" meets. Instructor Yeh Tsai-chiung is right in the middle of giving her all to teach the thirty or so mothers and grandmothers--average age over 50--to sing. Teacher Yeh's face is covered with a bright smile, and she waves the baton with exaggerated gestures. The students are infected by her enthusiasm, and everyone gets drawn into it; they are all concentrating on their singing, and the classroom is filled with the feeling of being sixteen all over again.
Besides learning the fine points of singing, you can also make new friends in karaoke class.
Karaoke has become a "national pastime" in Taiwan, and even government officials like Minister of the Interior Wu Po-hsiung (right) often enjoy getting in on the act.