Karaoke discord: The secrets behind closed doors

By Susan Edmunds, Monique Fisher

When karaoke first arrived in New Zealand, it was innocent good fun. Now, downtown karaoke bars play host to intoxication, drug-dealing, money-laundering and prostitution. Susan Edmunds and Monique Fischer investigate.

Johnny Cong, the new owner of Prince Karaoke bar in downtown Auckland, says his waiters go around the private booths, on the alert for intoxication and other problems. Photo / Doug Sherring
Johnny Cong, the new owner of Prince Karaoke bar in downtown Auckland, says his waiters go around the private booths, on the alert for intoxication and other problems. Photo / Doug Sherring

A group of middle-aged Asian men is crowded around a small table in a dimly-lit, underground bar, playing a dice game and drinking hard liquor. Word comes down from radio-linked security guards on the street . . . the police are approaching.

The game, the drunk young women and any other evidence of misdemeanour are quickly tidied away. By the time police open the door of the private booth, there is nothing but a few men in suits sitting quietly around the outside of the room, poker-faced.

It just doesn't feel right, says Auckland police shift commander Ben Offner. "They'll be all males and you'll know from where they are sitting what they are doing and who's in charge."

Because this isn't something from an opium den of the 19th century. It's an Auckland karaoke bar - where privacy, alcohol and more than a touch of criminality combine to shape one of the city's new dens of iniquity. Police aren't concerned about the terrible singing of businessmen - they are worried about drug-dealing, money-laundering, gross intoxication and prostitution.

Back in 2000, Tam Yam Ah, a bouncer at Heaven Paradise karaoke restaurant in Albert St, attacked patrons with a meat cleaver. "He was seen by the concierge of the City Life apartments running down Durham Lane holding a chopper above his head, chasing this guy sort of Hong Kong-style like some sort of bad movie," said defence lawyer Graeme Newell afterwards. "He'd used it on a couple of guys inside . . . they were singing Taiwanese when he wanted people to be singing Mandarin."

Tam Yam Ah was sentenced to six years in prison.

That was followed three years later by an Asian gang stabbing at Elmo Karaoke Bar in Karangahape Rd.

Things really fired up in 2005, though, when Tam himself was shot dead, execution style. The erstwhile Triad enforcer died in the carpark of the Symonds St Top Karaoke bar he part-owned. It was revealed during the course of the trial that Tam had paid $20,000 in cash for the deposit on his share of the karaoke bar - $300,000 in total.

One police source says there have been a number of seizures of drugs and cash at karaoke bars since then - including more than $1 million in cash from Feng Chih Hsu, during a methamphetamine bust dubbed Operation Arcadia. Hsu, the meth ring's kingpin, used karaoke bars to hold meetings of his drug syndicate, the High Court heard last month. Convicted of supplying methamphetamine and firearms charges, he was sentenced to 17 years and three months imprisonment.

Another police officer says most karaoke bars have a "resident prostitute and drug dealer" on hand to meet patrons' needs.

Police are worried. Partygoers are alienated. What goes on in New Zealand's downtown karaoke bars is music only to the ears of organised crime.

If you haven't been out late in Auckland in the past few years, the word karaoke might remind you of the friendly neighbourhood bars of 20 years ago. A karaoke DJ wearing a cowboy hat and warming up the after-work crowd with The Gambler by Kenny Rogers. Then the hairdressers and bank tellers, a couple of wines under the belt, get up to wail their way through Dancing Queen, Nights in White Satin and I am Woman.

Those scenes are still played out on Homai Te Paki Paki on Maori Television. Someone's auntie, possibly a couple of RTDs into a six-pack, belting out an old Aretha Franklin number, or a gruff mechanic type surprising his wide-eyed kids with a velvety baritone.

But while the karaoke machine set up in a pub is still popular in some suburban bars, much of the country's karaoke singing is now being done in private booths in basement bars that are open all hours, with an approach to liquor licensing that could at best be described as lax.

These joints have been thrust into the spotlight lately with reports that intoxicated patrons are leaving mainstream pubs at closing time, or when they are kicked out for being too intoxicated, and heading to the karaoke clubs where they can continue to drink.

Partyworld in Newton lost its licence for 42 days because police found it hiding two extremely drunk women when they came to check the premises during the Rugby World Cup. They saw one, almost comatose, being carried into a back room as they walked in. It was the third time the licensee had fallen foul of liquor licensing laws, and the second time an attempt had been made to remove a drunk patron from the bar when police showed up.

Two more karaoke bars are facing legal action for serving drunk patrons.

Ben Offner doesn't have to think long when he's asked what concerns him most about karaoke bars. Just last week, he was patrolling Newmarket and passed a group of young women coming out of a karaoke bar. "They were legless," he says. "I thought, 'if I can prove where they've come from I can prosecute the bar'. But they might have got that way anywhere."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the city's karaoke bar managers are reluctant to talk publicly. Some of them are fighting to hold on to their liquor licences, and don't need any bad publicity. But down at Prince Karaoke on Quay St, the new owners say karaoke clubs are being unfairly singled out.

Manager Rose Cong says bouts of police attention are few and far between. The club changed hands a few months ago and she says there has been no interest from the police yet. "If we have trouble, the police will come, but if we behave, it's okay."

She says karaoke - and house spirits - are hugely popular with the club's Asian clientele. At the weekends they could have up to 50 patrons through in a night. If she sees people getting too drunk, she stops serving them.

But it's the seeing them that's the problem, says Offner. Part of the problem with karaoke bars is the way the private rooms are set out. Instead of one big open space, where the bartender can keep an eye on who is doing what, people book private rooms and stock up on alcohol to drink in them.

Offner says: "In a normal pub, it's quite open. Staff can see people walking around and decide when they have had enough. In karaoke bars, the licensee can't see what's going on."

At 1.40am on Friday, Sky restaurant on Kitchener St is empty save for the Korean manager and three waiting staff. The shadows reveal a statue, some pot plants, and dirty dishes left on one of the tables.

At the back of the darkened restaurant, Zoe Cho is minding the bar and the shelves full of spirits. Opposite her, white lights flash under the doors of three karaoke booths, and Korean music drifts out into the restaurant. There are no windows in the doors.

A tall, slim Asian woman in an elegant knee-length dress and high heels emerges from the ladies room, checks her make-up in the mirror, then disappears into one of the booths.

Groups of five or six people tend to book booths and stay for a couple of hours, says Cho. "There's no video surveillance, we just leave them in there."

The bar has been popular with Korean students, who have grown up in a culture that combines singing, food, and drinking to excess. They don't necessarily understand that bars are not allowed to serve drunks, and can react badly to being refused service.

Cho, an attractive 20-something with a plunging V-neck that shows off her cleavage, speaks with a New Zealand accent. Korean bars, she insists, provide pleasant environments. People who are too drunk will be removed - if one of their friends or colleagues emerges from the booth to report a problem.

"There generally aren't any fights inside the booths and if anything goes down, we drag them out."

Hilary Chung, head of Asian Studies at the University of Auckland, says private rooms and excess drinking are a cultural preference. On her travels to China, she is regularly taken to private rooms at restaurants by colleagues and contacts - as well as being practical, it's a sign of prestige. "Privacy is something you pay to have in a country where overcrowding is a problem."

And yes, she says, Asian cultures do have a different way of drinking. Drinking games, which are illegal in New Zealand pubs and bars, are popular. People tend to drink strong spirits, often slamming them down in one go. "Asian liquor, made from rice - like sake - are very strong. Asian people don't have the physiology to handle drinking a lot."

Drinking to get drunk. It's an alcohol culture that is not far removed from New Zealand's one. And that makes the karaoke bars popular with young Kiwis who want a big night out with their friends. Aucklander Sebastian van der Zwan says the free and easy approach to alcohol, and the ability to find a private nook in which to indulge one's music and liquor preferences, are part of the appeal.

The 29-year-old is an ardent karaoke fan - although he admits that in general he is too intoxicated to remember the names of the places he has visited - and says the ability to drink as much as you like, and sneak alcohol in without being noticed, is part of the appeal.

He started going to karaoke clubs when he was 21 and had just finished university. But it's still a regular part of nights out. "You can get really wasted."

He says he gets caught sneaking alcohol in about a third of the time and he can remember only one time he was asked to leave. "Shrieking like banshees, jumping all over the booths and swinging the microphones by the cords. We may also have snuck booze in."

Auckland Council's liquor licensing team say it is difficult to determine exactly how many karaoke bars are in the city, as many claim to be restaurants. Licensing manager James Jefferson says there is no excuse for duty managers failing to monitor intoxication levels.

"As a minimum, we would expect regular physical checks to be made throughout an evening and intoxication levels to be assessed before further sales took place."

It's not just the intoxication that worries police.

That cup of dice you often see on a table in the middle of a karaoke bar's reception area? That's a drinking game that the bars are at pains to hide from police. Drinking, gambling - and drugs.

Detective Inspector Bruce Good has serious concerns about drug dealing being done behind closed doors in karaoke rooms that have all the accessibility of a public bar, yet all the privacy of a private home. "Historically there have been underground gambling dens run by Asians and they are still there," he says.

The gangs are believed to be responsible for much of the drugs imported into this country, and Good has no doubt that drugs are being dealt and trafficked through karaoke bars - and patrons should be aware of what is going on in the neighbouring rooms.

A police source who does not want to be identified says: "Karaoke bars have tended to attract a certain type of person who is involved in drug activities. They have tended to be a honeypot for organised crime elements. Private rooms lend themselves to that and a lot of money goes through. Crime figures like to show off their wealth as well as being able to talk privately."

Bars' management have worked with police to cut down on the use of their premises for criminal deals, "although that's less because they want to and more because they know they have to".

Labour MP Raymond Huo blames much of the trouble on young, newly-independent, cashed-up foreign students, posturing and imitating what they have seen in the movies.

They are bored, he says, they have no family supervision, and they have a lot of money.

"It's mainly youngsters influenced by action movies. We can't become a dumping ground."

Asian gangster movies get the blame too from Stephen Epstein, head of Asian Studies at Victoria University. He says it's common for Hong Kong and Korean films to portray gangsters in "room salon" type karaoke bars, where men pay to sing with showgirls and sometimes arrange to have sex with them afterwards.

In some countries, especially in southeast Asia, karaoke rooms are the last stop before the bordello.

Men used to those types of clubs might pay for prostitutes to accompany them into private karaoke rooms in New Zealand as a precursor to sex, Epstein says. There's nothing illegal about that - though it may not be an attractive thought for innocent karaoke singers in the booth next door. "If they're getting up to more than singing that's only a licensing issue," Epstein says.

Many bars operate a "hostess" system, says the police source, where women are used to entice men into bars and to encourage them to buy drinks. "We believe that does occur but it's kept very quiet."

In China, he says, that would come with the expectation of sex at the end of the night - but it's not clear whether that is happening in New Zealand.

Van der Zwan says he's never noticed anything too untoward when he's been in karaoke bars, although the police concerns don't surprise him as all the attention is on what's going on in the room.

Karaoke bars will always provide a cover for crime and intoxication in New Zealand, he says, "as long as there are drunk people who think they're rock stars."

- Herald on Sunday

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