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Monday Night Karaoke in Japantown's Hostess Bars 

Wednesday, Apr 29 2015

Down a flight of dusty steps lies the heart of Japantown's deepest dive of a karaoke bar — Dimples. Shut down for 45 days in 2014 for being a "hostess bar" (i.e. charging patrons exorbitant drink prices in exchange for cozy female attention), the bar was almost completely empty the Monday night I walked in. Only one man, wearing a black hat and overcoat, sat on the barstool at the very end of the bar. Our eyes met briefly as my girlfriend Ellie and I passed the bar's threshold before his darted away.

A bartender poured me a drink, walked away, and then awkwardly glanced in my direction every few minutes while I sipped on my flat, watered-down Coke. No music played. The TV overhead showed only a muted news program. No one spoke. The sound of each succeeding sip on my Coke seemed to grow louder and louder until the cubes of ice tapping the sides of my glass sounded like the deafening splash of skyscraper-sized chunks of glacier collapsing into the ocean.

Behind me a cluster of couches, only feet away, might as well have been in a different country. The paralyzing vibe of the room, as stale and chilly as my soft drink, seemed a stark contrast to news reports stating this was the place to come to pay for attention. Perhaps my companion, or skin color, or the establishment's memory of a recent three-month undercover investigation that resulted in a 45 day suspension and three-year long probation where any similar infractions would lead to the bar losing its liquor license had thrown a wrench in the usual flow of things — but since no one was talking to me it was hard to decipher what exactly was going on.

A woman, dressed in a bright pink tank top, and caked in makeup, walked out of the labyrinth of private karaoke rooms in the back of the bar and spoke with a manager-looking man in Korean. They both looked at me quizzically. The experience was about as comfortable as, well, singing karaoke. (An activity, by the way, which I was neither offered onr saw anyone performing.) Clearly, I was in the wrong place — so I left.

One apparently oblivious Yelp reviewer, Timothy C., left a 2008 review of the establishment noting, "Love this place. Vinyl booths. Beautiful Asian women bartenders. Advice: Ask price for drinks, otherwise sticker shock at the end of the night ... I think I am going to learn Korean." But in 2014, after news of the hostess bar scheme broke, he revised his review to, "A Korean hostess bar clip joint, will never go there again."

Outside, Post Street felt deserted. Intent on finding a place to sing my heart out before heading home like the rest of the world, I decided to visit another karaoke bar featured in the Dimples police report — Pagoda. The also sub-street level karaoke bar, just 30 or 40 paces up the street from Dimples had its license suspended for 60 days last year for a similar drink solicitation scheme. According to news reports, it also had an employee arrested on suspicion of soliciting an act of prostitution and another referred to the San Francisco District Attorney's Office for possible prosecution for pimping.

The smaller, less smoky bar similarly featured zero Monday night customers. The bar, populated only by a female bartender and manager-looking man sitting on the end of the bar, was more inviting than Dimples. My girlfriend and I were immediately greeted and offered some free peanuts. I love peanuts.

We were ID'ed, served beverages, and began to chat. The bartender welcomed us and put some music on the jukebox (that featured a sweet copy of Now That's What I Call Music 17) while muted K-pop videos looped on the screens above the bar.

For a second, I felt like I was in the warm, fuzzy beginning of an indie flick, visiting a quirky dive bar with a beautiful girl before any conflict or obstacles got in our way. We joked, filling the empty bar space with laughter and music. Unconcerned with the bar's emptiness, we dived into our own conversation; we were comfortable.

"Cute couple. Handsome boy, pretty girl," our bartender says. "Sing a song."

She plops down a book full of just about every early '90s and 2000s top 100 pop hits you could think of. The thick, laminated pages are only about 20 percent English, so we flip to that section and immediately something jumps off the pages at me: Avril Lavine's "Sk8er Boi."

Avril Lavine pretty much just sounds like someone singing karaoke, so how hard could this one be? Ellie, eager to show off her skills on the mic, chose Akon's "Smack That" and "Jump" by Kris Kross.

Before I could reconsider my song choice — or every decision in my entire life that has led up to this point — the bartender hands me a mic, and the pop-punk guitar intro kicks in. Should I stand up? Probably not, right? Oh shit here it comes.

"He was a boi/ she was a girl/ can I make it any more obvious?" I belted out over the PA system. "He was a punk/ she did ballet/ what more can I say?!"

My voice is louder than I anticipated. The words on the screen are a bit jumbled, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't know what was coming next.

"He wanted her/ she'd never tell/ secretly she wanted him as well," I shout through one of those awkward smiles. The bartender is clapping along off-rhythm now. "All of her friends/ stuck up their nose/ they had a problem with his baggy clothes"

Much like the proper way to pronounce karaoke, hostess bars seem to be an idea that hasn't properly transferred over to the states. Perfectly legal in many Asian cities, hostess bars are a normal, accepted part of nightlife in booming metropolises like Macau and Tokyo. So of course they are going to be put up here too. Word on the street says there's an invite-only one inside the Japantown mall across the street.

"Five years from now/ she sits at home/ feeding the baby she's all alone/ she turns on TV/guess who she sees?/ Sk8er Boi rocking up MTV" I sing, progressing the storyline with my tone-deaf shouting. The sketchy guy from Dimples walks in and takes a seat at the end of the bar, chuckling at my heart-felt rendition of the 2002 alt-teen classic.

This isn't my standard Monday night. Can you really get a prostitute here? Where are they? Is it the nice lady who handed me the peanuts? Oh boy, chorus time, baby, bring it home.

"He was a sk8er boi/ she said see ya later boi/ he wasn't good enough for her/ Now he's a superstar slamming on his guitar/ does your pretty face see what he's worth?"

The silly charm of singing karaoke is wearing off at this point. The bartender has politely walked away. Ellie's laughing with (but mostly at) me. But damn it I've got story to tell. I can't set up this beautiful tale of revenge-satisfying love between the sk8er boi and girl and then leave the four people in attendance hanging on its ending, can I?

"Sorry girl but you missed out/ well tough luck that boy's mine now/ we are more than just good friends/ this is how the story ends."

Karaoke City

DJ Purple, Emperor of Karaoke

Mel-o-dee Karaoke: 'Gem of the East Bay'

Come Sing for Mama

The Mint: All Karaoke, All the Time

Ballads Are a No-No

Karaoke Kounterpoint: You are hereby found guilty of crimes against humility.


About The Author

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's former music editor.


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