Five karaoke spots, one night. Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear.
Text by Ada Mayflower | Images by John Hook
Though karaoke traces its roots to Japan, where the first karaoke machine was invented in 1971, I’d say that it is in Hawai‘i, a place filled with diverse cultures, classes, and personalities, that karaoke is most beloved. The mere mention of it can break barriers or build relationships. Get two complete strangers in a karaoke room together, and they’ll leave as lifelong duet partners, bound together by their shared love for the perfect pitch of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” Gays, as we know, have a particular knack for karaoke; in a group of ten, there’s a good chance that at least eight will be able to belt Bon Jovi, rap Salt N Pepa, or croon Frank Sinatra.
Looking to get our karaoke fix, a group of us went out for a night on the town. Honolulu has a slew of great bars for unleashing your inner rock star. Many have private rooms, and others come with their own shticks (face your fear of stage fright with on-stage karaoke at Sansei in Waikiki; live out your inner gamer at Nocturna in Restaurant Row). Our plan was simple. Starting at 7 p.m., we would hit five karaoke bars, spending an hour at each. We’d hit Chiko’s Tavern to sing a quick tune and grab a bite, then head to Waikiki for perennial favorites Wang Chung’s and In Between; this all followed by Café Duck Butt for their watermelon soju and another late-night snack. We’d end the night in Chinatown at Smith’s Union, the oldest bar in Honolulu.
At 7:15 p.m., we arrive to Chiko’s, a neighborhood bar popular for its darts, yummy pupus, live Hawaiian music, and $1 karaoke. “A Woman’s Worth” by Alicia Keys plays as we enter, and it takes us a few minutes to realize it’s actually someone singing, not a recording. After contemplating ordering the fried pork chops and tater tot nachos, we opt for drinks only, stocking up on liquid courage to match the talent already in the room. We do a number on Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and Ace of Base’s “All That She Wants” before realizing it’s already 8:36 p.m. We dash out the door and head to Waikiki.
At 9:15 p.m., we get to Wang Chung’s, which recently moved to a bigger location in the charming Stay Hotel. Dan Chung, the place’s proprietor, bounds over like a sprite, his shirt emblazoned with the words “Really Big Wang.” He cheekily reminds me not to leave without getting a misfortune cookie. Three rounds of drinks in, we realize we still haven’t eaten, and order from the new Asian and Latin inspired menu: Saigon pork hash sliders, ginger crab Rangoon dumplings, fried pickles with Sriracha mayo. Instead of picking through the sticky pages of heavy binders looking for a song, at Wang Chung’s, we peruse the complete list online, which makes it easy to find even the most obscure of choices. “It’s all about song choice,” my lawyer friend—who often finds himself questioning if his true calling isn’t in fact law but karaoke—tells me. “It’s storytelling, right? You gotta assess the crowd. Ask yourself, what is going to make this crowd scream? Like, singing about the love that you lost, that you’re never going to get back? People love that.”
We overstay our time again, stumbling out the door two hours later at 11:18 p.m. It’s easy to stay too long at Wang Chung’s. The bar staff is friendly and cute, and it’s easy to fall for the eclectic crowd with an even more eclectic song choice (B-52’s “Rock Lobster,” complete with pseudo cowbell, come on!).
By 11:36 p.m., when we stagger into In Between, just a short walk from Wang Chung’s, the wigs are off and we’re all a good deal toasted. We lose a few from our group on the way over, but we pay no mind! We know we’re guaranteed a good time at In Between, where you can get chummy rubbing shoulders in a space no bigger than someone’s walk-in closet. Like Wang Chung’s, In Between has its songs available digitally on searchable monitors. We hassle the bartender, who looks like the local version of Raul from Dangerous Minds (Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” also a must for karaoke), to sing something, and he pauses from pouring drinks to do a great rendition of “Treasure” by Bruno Mars.
When we leave In Between, it’s 1 a.m., and we decide to save Duck Butt and Smith’s Union for another adventure. We know tomorrow morning we’ll be hurting, a head-pounding reminder of just how good tonight was. But for now, as the lights flash by on our ride home, we continue to smile and hum.
This story was published in issue two of Lei. Get it here.