Karaoke (or KTV) in China: Singing or Sex Club?

KTV in China

I wrote this short story in 2011. It was firstly published in another website, but the website closed down last year, so we decided to republish the story here on SDC, as we think it’s still interesting, and relevant!

A nice encounter

Muse Club, Shanghai, almost one a.m.

I’m more bored than ever and I decide to contact a girl from Anhui province that I met two days ago on the pedestrian bridge at the intersection between Yan An Road and Xi Zang Road. I send her a text message:

“我在Muse, 你干什么?” (I’m at Muse, what are you doing?)

She answers:

“我在KTV工作.你们几个人?” (I’m working at the karaoke. How many of you?)

“我一个人,你要来吗?” (I’m alone, wanna come?)

“和你聊天跳舞,你给我钱吗?” (If I talk and dance with you, will you pay me?)

“Oh shit, another prostitute!” I think while I give up and order a Carlsberg.

I had this conversation during my first year in China, 2010, when it still surprised me if a girl I met in the daytime turned out to be a part or full-time prostitute.

What to expect

With time, I understood that – especially around Nanjing Road, the most touristic pedestrian road of Shanghai – it’s easier to find a hooker than a decent pizza (unless you like Pizza Hut).

There are girls that call you at your hotel room to ask if you need some “help” – the (in)famous ding dong girls.

You will meet hairdressers that invite you for a “massage” in the backroom of their shops and girls that will hand out their business cards on the street promising “24 hours on call for service and please” as in the photo.

You can always find a dancer that is willing to play perudo (a popular dice game) and maybe leave the club with you as long as you pay for her Ballantines with green tea (although having sex with her will probably cost you an extra fee).

There are the massage parlors and beauty centers that welcome you with pink lights and couches full of half-naked girls playing with their cell phones…

And then the queens of the Chinese sex industry, the KTV girls (the Anhui’s girl whom I talk at the beginning of this article is one of them).

Karaoke in China

“KTV” is what the Chinese people call karaoke. If you have never been to Asia or watched Lost in Translation, you might think of a “KTV” as a lame bar where people start to sing “Yellow Submarine” or “Satisfaction” after they drink seven vodka and Redbulls.

This is what you get in Europe. And I guess in America it must be pretty much the same.

However in China when a bunch of guys are heading to a KTV is a very different setup.

There are KTVs for all social classes.

You can choose an expensive venue where businessmen and politicians gather to discuss important matters surrounded by beautiful girls that, from time to time, don’t limit themselves to laughing at the customers’ jokes and drinking Harbin beer.

You can opt for less pretentious clubs that even white-collar workers can afford or for a cheap bar designed for the construction workers that left their wives in the countryside.

The average Chinese KTV is a hybrid between a nightclub (lots of lights and girls in miniskirts walking everywhere) and a motel (because of the fact that you rent a room for singing a specific number of hours).

The KTV’s rooms are equipped with a big television where you can see the music videos and words of the songs, a couple of microphones, a small table and some couches.

Although it has been documented that sex in the KTV may happen – see the book Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China by Prof. Zheng for the crude details, – these rooms are not the equivalent of a bedroom where the customers have sex with the workers.

Many customers are happy to feed their egos by having a couple of girls around, drink with them and spank their ass from time to time. However, the ones interested in having a sexual rapport with the hostesses will reach a “personal agreement” with them and meet up again outside the KTV.

A face issue?

The interesting fact is that, even if KTV is spread all around China, as a foreigner is not so easy to come across to their real function. I’ve been to a couple of KTV myself and I never had a girl overtly approaching me. I guess that you have to ask.

When talking with a foreigner, many Chinese people will deny that the KTV girls are often prostitutes. I even meet some people that deny the existence of KTV girls whatsoever. They will argue that if there are so many KTV it’s because Chinese people love to sing.

And this is true: it must be pointed out that not all the KTV offer female companions.

However, this is only half of the story.

This is China, a country where preserving the appearance and saving face will always be a priority.

Frequently asked questions

What is KTV?
KTV stands for Karaoke television, a musical entertainment where you play songs on a TV screen and read the lyrics while singing. KTV is especially in Asian countries, including Japan, China, Macau, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Cambodia.
Do they have English songs on KTV in China?
They usually do, but English songs sometimes come in a limited amount. You’ll mostly find old classic songs from bands and singers like Elvis Presley, ABBA, Robbie Williams, and similar.
How much does it cost to visit a KTV in China?
Visiting KTVs is comparably cheap in China and you generally pay RMB 100-400 per hour, according to the size and standard. Prices differ between cities and you’ll find the highest rates in places like Beijing and Shanghai. In remote areas and smaller cities, prices are significantly cheaper.
What is Chinese karaoke?
The Chinese don’t have their own version of karaoke per se. Chinese karaoke simply refers to Chinese karaoke joints and where you can sing English and Chinese songs, at the same time as you drink and eat.
Can I buy alcohol on KTV in China?
Yes, you have no issues buying alcohol at KTVs in China. It’s most common that people drink beer and soft drinks at karaoke. But, you can also buy a bottle of whiskey or vodka, if you prefer.
What are some popular Chinese Karaoke songs?
There are plenty of popular Chinese karaoke songs. Some examples are:

  • The Moon Represents My Heart – Teresa Teng (邓丽君: 月亮代表我的心)
  • High Song – Huang Ling (黄龄: High歌/嗨歌)
  • Goodbye Kiss – Jacky Cheung (张学友: 吻别)
  • My Chinese Heart – James Wong (黄沾: 我的中国心)
Is it legal to visit KTV in China?
Even if some KTVs operate illegally, it’s not illegal to visit them per se. You can check for recommendations of reputable KTVs on travel forums such as Tripadvisor.
From which country does KTV come from?
KTV stands for Karaoke television and originally comes from Japan. The word Karaoke comes from the words Karappo and Okesuture, which means “empty” and “orchestra”. Thus, it literally translates to “empty orchestra” as it’s music with missing melodies.

Photo Credits: Creative Commons License Hostess @ Diamond KTV, Phnom Penh (Dah in background) by Jonathan van Smit

6 thoughts on “Karaoke (or KTV) in China: Singing or Sex Club?”

  1. I am foreign woman in china One time old lady like 60 i years old try to talk to me in playground for my kid , she said me you are beautiful and she likes me and so on !ask me many questions , later want me to add wechat ! one day she invite me to meet eachother for lunch , then she ask me to go and take my daughter from her school to we go and have some fun for my kid, I just respect her age as Chinese culture she said name of some place to chinese language that I didn’t get her meaning from first , in the way I say her I have kids what is this place very far and she already sent to me location and I got shocked it was a ktv far from city !! I actually stop and we eat together and come back home !! And she want me again I met her friend or boss as she said and she help me to take care of my kids later ! Really she looks very nice and kind to me also I didn’t want but she pays us first time , so I still too much confuse , what is her meaning ? She really want me know her boss help me to get to know more chinese people ? Or it’s her job find beautiful woman for ktv as prostitution ? Or I was wondering maybe she do some thing about kids ?

    1. I can’t understand well the situation. However, I will say that generally Chinese people are really careful about the kids (they will never leave them with a people they don’t totally trust). Also women tend to be reluctant to meet their bosses in certain circumstances (recently many disturbing news about abuses appeared in the media).
      Anyway, if you don’t feel comfortable with the situation you can always refuse as they do, telling that recently you are a bit busy

  2. Horrible places and many cautions to any wives whose husbands travel to China for “business”. So called “business dinners” are a front… trust me, they are doing a lot more than attending to business. Don’t be fooled.
    KTVs and China cultures will destroy marriages! If your husband keeps going back to China, the only reason is for the girls!

  3. Going out with a group of men to a KTV in celebration of a business contract or large milestone is a memorable experience.

    As a Waiguo ren (foreigner) you are an honored guest and a good KTV is a great place to be honored. The girls will line up and you walk down the line as each one gives you their best smile. Choose the girl of your dreams. They will have all different types. Then let the games begin.

    Lots of alcohol and a pretty girl in a skimpy outfit who is not shy, likes to laugh and sit in your lap while she lavishes you with attention and brings you more alcohol … plus a little food. No worries if you don’t speak a work of ChInese. There is always WeChat and the translator to communicate.

    As the night progresses, at some point the lights go out and the tops suddenly come off. This is where it pays to be an honored guest. Games begin. A typical game is that you will be blindfolded and several girls stand in front of you as you drive by Braille and try to guess which one is your partner. Lots of fun and the games get quite intimate for both the guests and the girls – neither of which seem to be shy about their bodies at all.

    If your group stays late, and you want to, a business arraignment can easily be made for a reasonable cost and the woman will accompany you back to your hotel.

    That is one side of the KTV. The other side is a group of people go out, rent a room and sing Karaoke … just like any other Karaoke bar in the world. Same building. Same staff.

    I’m very familiar with East Nanjing Lu and spent a lot of time there. You are right to never assume that the friendly young woman that you meet on the street or waitressing in a bar is a prostitute. Many are not. Most are just trying to survive.

    Keep in mind, however, that ChInese culture is very different from that of the West and (believe it or not) the Chinese woman dominate the household. That is a different story, entirely, but be prepared for fireworks and head games if you are a Western man with any pride at all and want to take a ChInese woman as a wife.

  4. I went to China for a business deal with Chinese manufacturers. Their marketing manager offered me to go to K-TV together, but I declined his offer thinking that KTV is for prostitution. After reading your article, I think it is not a too bad idea to go KTV especially if I wanna make a good relationship(guanxi) with Chinese business.

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