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THE SCENE

Singing Praise of Social Hour : Karaoke Cafes in Garden Grove, Westminster Serve as Communal Hangouts for Vietnamese Teens

July 22, 1994|ROSE APODACA JONES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Santiago High freshman Tracy Tran clenches the microphone with her right hand and stares intently at the small television monitor a few feet above.

A video is playing out the Good Life, Miami style: a limousine drives past white high-rises, a cigarette-smoking executive in a glitzy club looks despondent, his stylish lady friend stands behind him at the bar. The couple's pantomime hails out of a B-movie with all the forced expression of emotion.

In a graceful yet tentative voice, Tracy sings the lyrics at the bottom of the screen. Her friends sit silently and listen, as do most of the teens hanging out this evening at Che Men, located in a mini-mall across from Bolsa High School.

Che Men, like about a dozen karaoke cafes in Westminster and nearby Garden Grove, caters to patrons too young for bars and nightclubs, but who still hanker for grown-up style entertainment. The only "cocktails" here, however, are sweet, nonalcoholic fruit shakes and desserts.

High-schoolers pile in about 9 or 10 p.m. every Friday and Saturday evening, recognizable by their oversize jeans and other hip-hop gear. Beepers, in every color but black, are standard accessories. By contrast, the earlier, college-aged crowd dresses more conservatively.

These younger patrons also turn the place into more of a communal scene. They bring the tiny tables together, forming banquet-style seating, and raise the noise level significantly between songs by chatting and laughing.

Older customers leave earlier, Che Men owner Chan Dang notes, because they have to get up the next day for work. Then the high-schoolers invade the place and hang out until 1 a.m., when the cafe closes and their curfew is up.

My reporter-friend, Thuan Le, whom I dragged along to help with interpreting, whispers her surprise over Tracy's song selection. It's a traditional number about missing the homeland called "Xin Goi Nhau La Co Nhan" ("Let's Call Each Other").

Thuan says it's curious that a 14-year-old, especially one who's been living in California most of her life, would choose this golden oldie.

Tracy later says she knows the piece from her brother's home karaoke machine. But much of the song's significance is lost on the teen, who can read Vietnamese, but doesn't understand the meaning of all the words.

That's better than her pals Duong Dang, 16, and Katie Tran, 17. Both can speak their native language "pretty good." But don't ask them to tell you what's flashing on the screen. They read only English.

"I prefer to sing 'American' songs," says Katie, a senior at La Quinta High School, who frequents a cafe almost every weekend. Perusing the booklet of more than 1,000 songs available, I can only make out about two dozen in English.

This might explain why the photographer and I are the only ones here who are not Vietnamese. Katie and others say they have encouraged their non-Vietnamese friends to join them, "but they're not interested in coming. They probably just feel weird coming to a Vietnamese place."

It's too bad, she adds, because kids of any ethnicity could enjoy the ambience of a karaoke cafe.

"It's a great place to kick back and eat and listen to music," says Duong, a Saddleback High sophomore.

*

From the selections sung this evening, it seems that most every song in Vietnamese is a love ballad, except, of course, for the occasional patriotic number. Thuan confirms this.

Katie and her friends say they wish karaoke cafes would offer snappier tunes, in Vietnamese or English.

At least some of the English selections have an upbeat tempo. But when it comes to choosing between "Like a Virgin" or "Hopelessly Devoted to You" from the Grease soundtrack, Madonna loses.

Maybe it's just tough to get into the pop diva mood sitting down. Karaoke in Vietnamese establishments is an armchair experience, unlike in other bars, where aspiring song birds get up in front of everyone and perform. No offspring of Ethel Merman here. "Vietnamese people are too shy to get up in front of everyone," Thuan says.

Although that sounds like a cultural generalization, at times it's tough to tell who's got the microphone, because some patrons hold it so low and close to themselves.

Even the presentation of lyrics is different. Asian-language karaoke usually comes with videos, but not in MTV style. "Some of them look real nice," says Tracy, "but a lot of them look kind of funny. They make us laugh. The people in them don't look natural at all."

These teens are certainly bolder than yours truly. Here they are, revealing their talent--or lack of it--by just signing up for a song. Katie usually applies for two or three chances through the night. "You can't be embarrassed," she says. "Everybody has to sing. Just like no one can make you sing and no one can stop you."

As for those crooning in a key other than the music, Katie says it's a matter of silent knowledge. "It's terrible when someone can't sing. We know they're awful, but we never say anything. That's rude."

*

Che Men owner Dang seats his customers quickly as they walk into the small cafe. A pot of tea and cups are delivered as speedily. Their desserts soon follow.

Thirtyish Dang is considered tops among his young clientele. Like other cafe owners and their employees, Dang and his adult staff serve as chaperons--but cool enough to let everyone feel at ease. They treat the crowd with a respect usually reserved for their parents. In turn, this rather hip group of teens responds with a maturity most adults would be surprised to see.

"I opened this (cafe) because there are no nightclubs for younger people," says Dang. "Teen-agers like to go out, too, just like everyone else."

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