It's a sunny Thursday in Hong Kong when Carmen Wong takes the mike in a dimly lit room at a karaoke lounge. As she belts out a number by Cantopop (Cantonese pop) star Sammi Cheng, her colleagues bounce to the beat, waving forks in the air between bites of udon noodles, pork cutlets and potato salad.
It's been years since karaoke, that staple of modern Asian life, was relegated to the ranks of drunken salarymen. Today in Hong Kong, it's being integrated into office life in a new tradition known as "K Lunch." Hong Kong residents are flocking to karaoke studios on their lunch hours, when many businesses are now offering two hours of food and song for less than $5. Students routinely hit up K Lunch, but the low price using the same room after 6 p.m. costs about three times as much also lures office workers, teachers, retirees and housewives. "You can have a much better lunch elsewhere, but we prefer to sing and have fun rather than just sitting down in a restaurant and having lunch in a hurry," says Yivon Yung, a 23-year-old Chinese-language teacher who spends three hours at K Lunch at least twice a month. She admits that lunch at a karaoke lounge, not her job, is "the main activity of the day." (Read about America's "Karaoke King.")
K Lunch has been around for years, but Eric Chu, marketing director at Neway, a leading Hong Kong karaoke chain, says his company began to promote it aggressively in 2001 in hopes of drumming up business during off-peak hours. Today, his outlets offer sushi buffets, Internet access and PlayStation consoles. Many are fully booked at lunch. And the recession hasn't hurt business: Neway lowered its prices 10% to 15% last November to lure penny-pinching customers and saw a few more patrons trickle in for the bargain.
In a city of 7 million people that is uncomfortably hot most of the year, the appeal of spending one's lunch hour in a private, air-conditioned room is undeniable. Lunchtime lung workouts also make sense in a culture that prizes the family dinner. Chu attributes K Lunch's popularity to its affordability and Hong Kong's cramped living spaces. While in other countries, homes are large enough to accommodate friends, "in Hong Kong, a family of four lives in a 700-sq.-ft. apartment. People like to have their own private area for their amusement."
K Lunch patrons make the most of their privacy. Down the hall from Wong, a middle-aged couple canoodled on their room's black pleather couch. In another room, two girls in prim white school uniforms and navy cardigans sang earnestly between slurps of udon, their eyes glued to the screen. High school boys with spiky hair whooped and crooned.
While the prospect of singing in front of others may be embarrassing for some, Wong and her colleagues have been doing it since they were kids. They feel more comfortable singing about some topics, like love, than talking about them. In fact, Wong's only beef with K Lunch is that she can't sing every song. "It's like playing mah-jongg [a popular Asian game played with tiles]," she says. "You can't win all the time. Sometimes, you have to pass the mike to someone else."