The Secret Lives of Chinese Language, Malaysian Foodcourt Karaoke Performers


The Jaded Raven

Street art near the Red Garden.

Every single night we spent in Georgetown, we spent in the Red Garden. Faith and Ty had described the place with wistful sighs and starry eyes–a kind of magical fantasy land where dreams came true, where magical nymphs roamed with beer fountains sprouting from their serene heads, where fresh unicorn meat was always available on the spit. Where the gods of Olympus themselves came down to frolic and enjoy the pleasures of Earth.

It was, indeed, pretty awesome: an enormous cornucopia of Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, and other Asian cuisines; a battalion of viciously efficient, middle-aged beer waitresses; a sea of free tables filled with dozens of happy customers. But the true glory of the Red Garden laid in the entertainment.

The tables of the Red Garden are situated into orbits around a central stage, equipped with karaoke television displays, microphones, keyboards, and serious speakers. Every night, four young Chinese-Malaysians would perform a variety of Mando-pop hits, spiced occasionally with some English and Malay songs as tips to others in the audience.

On the surface this may not sound like the miracle of entertainment it actually is. Consider, for a moment, the surrealness of having most of your dinner soundtracked to the not-terribly-high quality of food court karaoke singers, mostly singing in Mandarin, to badly produced karaoke instrumental versions of hits from mainland China. Consider, for a moment, that all four of them wore themed, matching costumes. Consider that most of the crowd ignored them and simply pretended they did not exist, occasionally glancing towards the stage with a kind of bored surprise, as though asking, “When the hell did they start singing?”

We became instantly infatuated, and began to imagine their lives and interactions beyond the stage–all of the intrigue that we felt must necessarily be a part of trying to make it in the entertainment industry, even this bizarre corner of it.

For one, their foursome had an intriguing configuration. The main trio would perform in concert with one another, with one person taking lead and the two compatriots acting as backup dancers/singers, and then rotating through positions as new songs came on. The fourth acted as a sort of switch-hitter, a replacement entertainer filling in the gaps between the headliners. This young stalwart was the opener, the intermission, and the crowd amper between sets.

We imagined tumult among the three leads. Steve, as we decided to name the male of the posse, was clearly the most invested in the choreography. Whenever the others would lead, he would intensely proceed to twist and jive, supportively grooving to the Sino-strains of the main singer while the other backup would try, with considerably less enthusiasm, to keep up with his finely honed moves. The youngest, most peppy of the three, who we deemed to be Lin, was a beacon of smiles and charm and perilously little guile for someone stepping into the dark world of entertainment–we feared for her lost innocence, for her journey to the big leagues in KL, for the jadedness she might one day feel towards the world. We imagined drugs. We imagined casting couches. We imagined the dark future, the magnetic pull of the limelight, and the deep toll it would take on her chipper young heart. Clarissa, the third of the trio, was a diva figure. She cared little for Steve’s choreography, tried ably to steal the spotlight from Lin, and would relish in hogging the attention whenever she took centre stage, and even sometimes as backup.

Savannah, the intermission specialist, was more of a cypher. She would sing in Malay as often as Mandarin, and broke directly into our hearts on that fateful second night. After a rousing, bewildering triumvirate stab at some mildly popular Chinese jam, Savannah took the stage. In halting English, she blurted, “Do you want to break free? I want to break free!” and proceeded to do Freddy Mercury as much justice as a foodcourt karaoke performer can. When we later approached her nervously, like little girls backstage at a Bieber concert, she happily embraced our praise, even as it became clear that she spoke absolutely no English beyond, apparently, the lyrics to old Queen songs. (This, if anything, broadened our love for her.)

Backstage life, we imagined, was rife with backstabbing and attempts to one-up one another. Savannah was clearly trying to work her way into headliner territory, and would no longer settle for Wednesday night intermission slots, shared with various drag shows and announcements about different dim sum specials. Steve was a consummate professional, and obviously hated Clarissa with a deep passion, resented her disregard for his intensely prepared dance routines, and dreamed of one day taking the Red Garden for himself. Clarissa had probably seized the dressing room (which was almost certainly a repurposed meat freezer) for herself alone, and disdained having to share the stage with anyone. Lin dreamed of moving beyond, of going to the big city, of even bigger and better food courts with even greater satay selections.

The rest of the food court staff was definitely in on the drama. Our Bangladeshi waiter would look coyly to the stage whenever Lin performed, and we imagined an impassioned interracial love affair, succeeding despite the odds. Would Suresh follow Lin to KL one day? Would he reach his dreams of being a professional cricket player? Cooks would roll their eyes whenever Savannah performed, and we felt certain that everyone despised her, even as we were positive that they appreciated her ability to draw a crowd, and to hold a glory note for 154 sustained seconds. The older, Chinese beer wenches we imagined to be spurned, latter-day karaoke performers themselves – those hardened by years in the light of the Garden, left desolate and with no choice but the route of beer server when their looks finally started to turn. Their lives had become the Red Garden. What songs did they sing in the bathroom, under the dull fluorescent, while they dreamed of the past, and what could have been?

Lin and me. Probably sober.

Lin and me. Probably sober.

It was our final night in the Red Garden, and Lin came to the front of the stage. Steve and Clarissa had been hogging the lead role for a long time, and we had stopped paying attention, given the state of our Mandarin language skills. But Lin brought familiar backing music with her, and we slowly oriented towards the stage as she began to belt out a fairly recognizable version of The Cranberries’ “Zombie.” We rushed the stage to sing along, as years in Korean norae bangs had taught us to do, with Lin occasionally sharing the mic and happy with the burst of crowd engagement. Steve and Clarissa tried to retake the stage, but we made this Lin’s night. Her every song had us loyally crowding at her feet, singing and jumping around, even the ones in Malay and Mandarin. She began to take our requests, to pose for our pictures, and to distribute hugs with every glimpse of our love.

She could see in our eyes the adulation, the passion of fame. The kindling of something beyond the Red Garden. If this was what it meant to be on stage, she wanted it for the rest of her life. Do you want to break free? Lin wanted to break free.

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