There are only two bars worth your time in Chinatown: the Li Po Lounge, and a tiny, hidden spot called Bow Bow, which I have lovingly dubbed Lil Bow Bow. Most other joints in this neighborhood suffer from the Kardashian effect: They look good on the outside, but are as dull as darning needles on the inside. The signs hanging out front promise Madame Dragon's House of Opium and Duck Fat (whoo hoo!), but are really just bait-and-switch draws for tourists who will find themselves in a tiny red-painted square room with a humorless bartender.
Bow Bow is different. Sure, it looks much the same as the others, save for a few extra Chinese good luck charms here and there, but the bartenders are superfriendly, the karaoke is free, and there is a wall of different kinds of Hennessy to suit any personality and/or liver.
I wandered in with a friend after trying to hit Grasslands and L'Amour, two dive bars in the neighborhood I have heard a ton about, but which always seem to be closed. I am prepared to say that from what I have heard, these are the best bars in Chinatown. But since my word is my bond, I cannot in good conscience bestow the Golden Bouncer Award on them without firsthand experience.
So we ended up at Bow Bow. Two middle-aged men were at the end of the bar by the door, eating noodles and chatting in Cantonese. A tarted-up young lady was at the other end of the bar, thumbing through the karaoke book. My pal and I sat right in the middle of it all on two stools facing the bartender. Before she even asked us what we wanted, she pushed the song lists toward us. Some places serve salty snacks to keep you drinking; this gal was smart enough to realize the intoxicating effect of singing your heart out in front of total strangers. The more you sing, the more you drink.
We ordered some beers, and I started the slow yet deliberate process of talking myself into getting up there to belt one out. My brain is usually like, "Yes," then "No," then I hear someone sing a song I like, so I am all, "Yes!" Then I get butterflies and it's back to "No." And on it goes, the circle of life. It seemed particularly ridiculous to feel nervous in front of Chi and Chong at the end of the bar, who weren't paying any attention to anyone. Finally, I reached the bargaining stage of my inner karaoke conversation, and I told myself that if there were some '60s-era Bee Gees on there, I would sing.
I spotted "Run to Me," and it was on. I would be next.
Let me take this opportunity to suggest a brilliant hipster marketing idea, if it hasn't already been done. Someone needs to put all the corny background videos that have been produced by karaoke companies onto DVDs and sell them to people like me. To wit, the song "I Go Crazy" was playing, and whoever directed the number went literal, because it portrayed a guy in a straitjacket, rolling around in a padded cell with tear-stained cheeks. This was edited into footage of him in better times with the woman he loved, frolicking on a swing set and taking a bath together. Then back to Bellevue.
When "Run to Me" finally came on and I took my rightful place at the mike, the video was of crew exercises at Oxford, with guys rowing down the Thames. Then a koala in a tree would gaze out in a stoned haze of eucalyptus — chewing, chewing, chewing — then back to the rowers. The Bee Gees did spend much of their formative years in Australia, and they were born in England, so I suppose the video wasn't completely off the mark.
As for my singing, well, it was okay. I always fantasize that folks will want to know more about the Bee Gees song I have sung so well, and then run out and get all their reissues. I consider it my calling in life to increase Barry Gibb's fan base and add to his coffers. I just hope that one day he appreciates it.
I finished to scattered applause (but what the hell else does three people clapping sound like?). When I sat back down, the bartender immediately shoved the book at me again. She knew she had me. My inhibitions were down. The mood was electric. That's right, folks: It was time for "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
But first we had to sit through the other girl's Chinese song. I clapped politely, then wrestled the mike back out of her hand.
Then those first piano strains started. The video showed a bridge, of course — I just wish the director could have gone a bit further and superimposed frowning faces over the rivulets underneath to really underscore how "troubled" the water was. Without this, I would have to do most of the footwork of imparting any disquiet by myself. And impart I did. About two lines in, I realized that I did not have the voice to carry the pitch that the song required. I tried a few different levels, all in one line of the song, until I could find one that seemed to work best. My friend buried her head in her jacket. This wasn't working very well at all, so I went to karaoke Plan B, which is to sing even louder, because when you do that, you can hit notes better, in theory. This sort of worked. "AND PAIN IS ALL A-ROUND!!!" I sang, bent over for added lung power. The men visibly jumped in their seats. Here's another awkward thing about this song: Just when you think it is over, it comes in with, "Sail on silver bird ... " and you get pulled right back in. Jesus, would the song ever end? And you know that if the person singing it is thinking that, the audience has been feeling that way for a lot longer.
Finally, it ended. I looked around, and everyone was smiling really big. This probably meant several things all at once. I sat down, and this time, the bartender did not push the songbook at me. I can take a hint.
I was willing to retire for that evening. But I would be back. Oh yes, I would be back.
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