Karaoke comes to a ‘box’ near U

Owner Kumok Wong charges $20 per hour to use a karaoke box in her Stadium Village business, Boomtown Karaoke.

by Nathan Hall

Jeff Hsiao was belting out Chinese pop songs to a group of friends Friday night in what is informally known as a karaoke “box.”

Hsiao, a mechanical engineering senior from Taiwan, said the small room with couches, mirrors and a coffee table at Boomtown Karaoke in Stadium Village is not the same as the elaborate karaoke boxes back home. Still, he said he is happy to find an adequate substitute near campus.

Hsiao, 22, and his companions rent the private, brightly decorated, semi-soundproof room for $20 an hour to sing.

Boomtown Karaoke, located above Kumok’s Hair Salon and a soon-to-be-opened Korean restaurant at 211 Oak St. S.E., has four rooms equipped with a $1,000 electronic device imported from Korea called Taijin.

Boomtown Karaoke is one of a few local businesses providing Taijin, and is taking advantage of an emerging national trend.

The karaoke box trend is decades old in Asia but is just beginning to catch on in the United States, predominantly among Asian-American communities, karaoke experts said.

Rooms open at 10 a.m. and teem with students on the weekends, mostly high school and college age, owner Kumok Wong said.

Wong said she updates the karaoke machines every three months with a $300 chip that adds the latest Top 100 from North American and Asian countries.

According to enthusiasts’ Web sites, the original karaoke craze was born approximately 23 years ago at a snack bar in Kobe City, Japan. The first box appeared near Kansai, Japan, and was built from a converted freight train car.

The box is so popular in parts of Asia that some countries even go so far as to credit the lyric display screens with improving literacy rates.

There are more than 50 Minneapolis nightclubs currently featuring karaoke. Do Re Mi Music Studio, attached to Hoban’s, a Korean restaurant in Eagan, Minn., is the nearest box joint to Boomtown.

Wong said a substantial number of University students were driving to the outer-ring suburbs every weekend, and that was one reason she decided to open another similar store here.

“That’s more typically done in Asian countries,” said David Nolte, a customer representative for e-tailer www.karaoke.com. “Americans are just much more exhibitionistic in nature, but Asian culture tends to be a much more reserved thing.”

Denise Freeman, owner of U Otter Stop Inn in northeast Minneapolis, has offered karaoke for almost six years. Freeman said she has seen box demonstrations at the State Fair but thinks it will never work in a bar setting.

Orville Weiszhaar, who teaches a University independent study course on stress management, said the box phenomenon might be better-suited for Asian cultures.

“Places like Japan have a great deal of social restrictions, and being able to yell in a socially approved way is very important there,” Weiszhaar said, adding that he had not heard of the box concept before. “Karaoke as I understand it here is a show you do for the audience, so the dynamics are very different in my room.”

Weiszhaar said, “We’re always trying to impress or shock the crowd … so this is totally different.”

However, Arzu Gokcen, founder of mobile karaoke business Staraoke, said she thinks there is an audience for both forms of karaoke here.

“I’ve visited a few when I was in Tokyo Ö and my assistant wants to eventually open a box here too,” Gokcen said. “But for now, I personally really enjoy holding it in public and making a party out of it.”

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]