Monthly Archives: May 2012

Canberra – the little city that could

Canberra is not for me. Now remember, this is my personal opinion and perspective – not a mindless criticism. I’m all about connection and Canberra and I just didn’t connect. We didn’t fall in love. We didn’t even want to go out on a second date.
To me Canberra feels odd and perplexing. It’s as though someone designed a great city, built a great city but forgot to populate it sufficiently to fulfil its potential. The motorways and multi-lane freeways crossings chasms of empty space in such an effectively tiny city just seem like a mockery. I couldn’t fathom why everything was so spread out and far apart. The National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery and the National Library sit alongside each other – with about a kilometre of parking space and lawned area between each. Why? At the very least they could have installed a travelator between them.
War Memorial
There are wonderful things to see and do in Canberra – the War Memorial is sensitive and moving, the Botanic Gardens are charming and beautiful, and the galleries and museums are tremendous. I just couldn’t find the heart of Canberra. I couldn’t find its city heart. I like my city to behave like a city – but how do I define that? Its mall was like every other mall. Its shopping complex was like every other shopping complex. The people that wandered the mall and shopping complex were sophisticated, stylish people. But those qualities [deficiencies?] are not exclusive to Canberra. There’s nothing disparaging to say about Canberrians because they are regular people – some cool, some artistic, some fit and healthy jogging on a Saturday morning, others drunk and out on the town on Friday night.
But in the mall on Sunday two skateboarders zoomed past me…. both at least in their 30s. One was sadly balding, the other had a cap with greasy lank hair poking out, both had oversized t-shirts and baggy pants. No one but me gave them a second look.
While standing at a city pedestrian crossing on a Sunday afternoon, I waited for the only car within miles of sight to pass by and then stepped out against the little red ‘don’t walk’ sign. The guy driving by me in his van looked at me askance, incredulous – as though I were trying to cross a seven lane freeway on roller skates, with a small pig clutched under my arm. He shook his head, I imagine muttering something like, ‘these damn kids of today’.
There’s a laid back country feel to Canberra that is in contrast with its city status. To me, Canberra was perfectly illustrated by the following. Angela, my travelling companion – a highly successful, highly pressured partner in a high profile Sydney law firm ­– almost lost the plot when a McDonald’s cashier took my payment for a bottle of water, diligently printed out a service receipt and laid it down carefully in the appropriate place, ready for the service person to attend to. The fridge was behind the cashier. It wasn’t particularly busy. Angela started tapping her foot and crossing her arms, frowning. I confirmed, politely, that it was just the bottle of water I wanted. ‘Yep,’ the cashier said, ‘won’t be long’. And stared into the middle distance. Angela started muttering under her breath and rolling her eyes. I tried to smile gently at the cashier who was starting to get nervous. Another minute passed and Angela bursts out, spluttering, ‘Oh for fucks sake, it’s right behind you, just get the fucking bottle of water’, just as the service person trundled up to study my little receipt and fetch my bottle of water. Thank you.
But perhaps I’ve missed the point. Perhaps some of those quirky things are Canberra – a city/country hybrid with its own unique charm. It’s a lovely, lovely place to visit. But only if you don’t mind your city on the mild side. 

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Hong Kong Karaoke or be damned!

(A slightly fictionalised composite account of a true story….all memory is fiction anyway.)

The taxi driver screwed up his face as he looked at us through his rear view mirror. ‘No idea’, he said. Impossible. Hong Kong has thousands of karaoke bars. My friend Michelle employed the dreadful act of speaking louder to make herself understood, ‘We’d like to go to a KARAOKE bar. Can you take us to one?’, she shouted, ‘you know, singing’. As she cleared her throat, ready to launch into ‘Girls just wanna have fun’, the driver’s face suddenly lit up, ‘Ah yes!’. He nodded enthusiastically as he negotiated traffic like a kart driver. We didn’t realise that he literally meant a bar called Yes. Yes 11th to be exact. An improbable name for a bar in an improbable location – a fifteen story office building. We were in the middle of the Kowloon district, karaoke central, and I was about to confront my greatest fear – singing in public.
In Yes 11th, no one was singing anything yet. The concrete flooring and black décor made it a little foreboding. There were café style tables and wrought iron chairs in the centre, but we chose one of the comfy lounges along the side wall. There were private rooms, like most mainstream karaoke bars, but since we didn’t really know how it worked, we thought we’d make some observations first. Plus, you had to pay for private rooms by the hour, per person. We ordered the first round of drinks and waited to see what would happen. A great pile of steaming meat landed on our table, compliments of the manager. We eyed them warily and decided to call the dish ‘BBQ chicken wings’ even though there was no mention of it on the menu. Indeed, it tasted like chicken. The manager came over, shouting incomprehensibly at us in a menacing way but then broke into jolly laughter and wandered away. We couldn’t tell if he was pleased or cross that there were Westerners in his bar – we discovered later that Westerners normally headed to Neway or Red Box; Hong Kong karaoke institutions.
Neither the manager nor the “chicken” helped calm my nerves. I didn’t yet understand why people would put themselves through this.
A large group of young men and women came in and started fiddling around with the microphone, chatting to the owner and scrolling through song lists. Finally, they started to sing. They were having a great time, singing harmonies and duets. Romantic looking young men crooned love ballads – a performance complete with wringing hands, tortured expressions and dramatic arm waving. A girl with bright blue eye shadow at the next table told me Hong Kong people work so hard and are so reserved in behaviour, but at karaoke, it was their chance to shine, to stand out from the crowd and become famous for a moment. Those who really wanted to live the dream could even enter competitions, hire fantastic themed rooms, and generally pretend they were a rock star.
Eventually, one of the girls in the big group walked over to us smiling and, rather shyly, handed over the mike. This was it. Sing or leave. Michelle took the mike. We scrolled nervously through the list of songs available and settled on a Shakira number. ‘I don’t think I can do this’, I told her. Already my voice was wobbly, my throat dry. There was a little encouraging applause and then the music started. With tiny tiny voices, Michelle and I started to sing together. I saw smiling, encouraging faces. People were nodding quietly, not covering their ears in distress. We got a little louder, started smiling and relaxing instead of focusing intently on the written lyrics, and even finished with a vocal flourish.
The mojitos had done their job. Our last notes sung, we beamed happily when the whole bar, by now half full, erupted into loud cheers and clapping. I could breathe again. And perhaps I discovered that elusive element that made karaoke strangely intoxicating. The smiles were infectious, there was a sense of joyful camaraderie, and shared (sometimes traumatic!) experience. It was the perfect opportunity to step out of ordinary life and be someone else, even if only for three and a half minutes. Certainly there was no other place where strangers would listen patiently while I wrung the life out of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
Five songs later the pretty girl who brought over the mike came back to prise it gently from our hands, smiling and nodding, but firm. 



For copyright purposes, I think I need to let you know that an edited version of this blog first appeared in The Weekend Australian, October 2010 (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/travel/theres-no-stopping-the-karaoke-queens/story-e6frg8rf-1225941028931).

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Filed under Hong Kong, karaoke, karaoke bar, Kowloon, Neway, Red Box