The Secret to Karaoke in South Korea

On a South Korean train, Xiaowei initiates a conversation with an unfamiliar maiden seated beside him to while away the hours. As their dialogue intensifies, the fair damsel boldly clasps his arm and expresses her desire for a more exhilarating encounter in other compartments.

Traversing the dimly lit corridor and entering a door adorned with luminous neon lights, Xiaowei finds himself in the heart of the train—a private chamber within a restaurant. Pushing open the door with great anticipation, he discovers a space not much larger than a lavatory, transformed into a karaoke practice room! The maiden he had recently encountered skillfully performs a melodic piece and extends an invitation for him to join, asserting that this is the most gratifying pastime on their journey.

Some Koreans claim that the most effective method of delighting a local is by extending an invitation to karaoke. The room itself possesses the power of song.

According to STATISTA (the preeminent global comprehensive data repository), South Korea, roughly the size of Zhejiang Province, harbors a staggering number of karaoke establishments—up to 170,500—in a land area spanning 100,000 square kilometers. Calculations reveal a density akin to stumbling upon a public restroom, with two karaoke rooms encountered along the way.

When an abundance of decibels congregate within a confined space, the incremental change leads to distortion, a phenomenon akin to “involution” or, more aptly put, inundation. In essence, Korea not only boasts an abundance of karaoke joints, but they are also diminutive in size, to the point where they cannot be referred to as KTV, but rather as “karaoke rooms.” Yet for Koreans, as long as there is a record player, any space less than two square meters can be transformed into their quintessential vocal utopia.

The ever-increasing demand for singing has prompted karaoke to occupy every niche of real estate, and the overflow has inevitably spread to mobile properties, such as rail transit systems. Within the cramped train carriages, computers and game consoles await their transient patrons.

“It is better to live without wine than to live without song.” So spoke the truth of her homeland, as relayed to me by a Korean sister who sells barbecue downstairs in my company. She also conveyed that this sentiment reflects their optimism amidst a high-pressure societal milieu.

Intrigued by the experience of singing on a train, I indulged her with two taels of barbecue and beseeched her to illuminate me further. She revealed that karaoke rooms have graced South Korean train carriages since the close of the 20th century. Singing on trains boasts distinct advantages. The rumble of the tracks harmonizes with high-pitched melodies and even possesses its own percussive element. Moreover, Koreans generally relish train travel, and singing while onboard is the icing on the cake for them.

South Korea boasts a total of five train series, with most of the karaoke rooms situated in the dining cars. While the newer trunk lines and high-speed trains have fewer karaoke provisions, the older Hibiscus series offers well-appointed karaoke rooms, albeit at a slightly higher cost compared to their terrestrial counterparts. Nonetheless, locals willingly partake in such indulgences, occasionally splurging on their own vocal performances. Singing “Kilimanjaro Cheetah” en route to Changdeok Palace serves as a testament to their camaraderie.

Upon arriving in South Korea, foreign tourists inevitably find themselves captivated by these train amenities. Five gentlemen sharing a room, where singing and dancing intertwine. In a foreign land, Korea exhibits an unprecedented warmth akin to that experienced on the train, aside from the presence of kimchi.

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