No amateurs here. Competitors dazzle at Koreatown karaoke and K-pop dance competition

A woman performs at a karaoke competition in a mall.
The Los Angeles Times and Radio Korea co-hosted a street karaoke and K-dance competition at Koreatown Plaza in Los Angeles on July 16.
(Ada Tseng / Los Angeles Times)
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I should have known something was up when I saw a guy walk down the parking lot of Koreatown Plaza with a glittery red suit.

See, I was there to judge a street karaoke and K-Pop dance competition co-organized by The Times and Radio Korea. I had expected an easygoing Sunday afternoon, some fun with karaoke lovers who were confident but could not quite hit that note.

But when Youngju Kim got onstage in his red suit and started singing (and thrusting his hips to) “A Nest” by Korean trot artist Nam Jin, I knew I was in for a different kind of afternoon. Nearly every singer wowed the shoppers who stopped to watch at the three-story mall.

A crowd at a mall watching a performer onstage.
Crowds gathered at Koreatown Plaza to watch the street karaoke and K-dance competition co-hosted by The Times and Radio Korea on July 16.
(Ada Tseng / Los Angeles Times)

On Sunday, the L.A. Times and Radio Korea co-host a street karaoke competition in Koreatown Plaza. Former karaoke champions share their tips on how to approach a fun contest with serious strategy.

July 12, 2023

“I’ll sing like I’m about to die on the stage,” said Kim, a 30-year-old Gardena resident who works in the shipping industry. Kim, who did not tell his boss about his plans to perform, had bought the suit just a couple days before.

Another performer belted out “Amazing You” by Han Dong Geun, hitting high notes without breaking a sweat. One man even brought supporters, who held signs in Korean that said, “Let’s go” and “A handsome guy” to cheer him on.

I asked my fellow judges multiple times: Who am I to judge all those talented performers?

A man in a baseball cap sings karaoke onstage.
Jay Yeo was the grand prize winner of the Radio Korea and L.A. Times-hosted street karaoke competition on July 16. He sang Lim Young Woong’s trot song “Elevator, Not Stairs.”
(Ada Tseng / Los Angeles Times)

The winner of the competition came down to a tough choice between Ju-ri Kwon, who belted out “If I Leave” by Sumi Jo, and Jay Yeo, who sang Lim Young Woong’s trot song “Elevator, Not Stairs.” Yeo won the competition with his kkeokk-ki, where a note is embellished by fluctuating between surrounding pitches.

For many Korean immigrants, trot songs tug at the feelings they often suppress as they go about their daily routines in their adopted country.

March 4, 2023

Yeo, a 43-year-old reporter for a Korean-language broadcasting outlet, said his wife told him to apply.


His wife said he sang trot too loud in their home. Why don’t you sing outside? she said.

“So I went outside and sang,” Yeo said.

An all-girl dance crew gets an award onstage.
L.A. Times reporter Jeong Park, left, awards the dance crew Project: KND second prize at the street karaoke and K-Dance competition hosted by The Times and Radio Korea on July 16.
(Ada Tseng / Los Angeles Times)

For the record:

8:12 a.m. July 26, 2023In an earlier version of this story, a photo caption said it was showing Shero accept second prize in the dance competition. The photo shows Project: KND accepting the award.

In the K-Pop dance competition, 14 crews from across Southern California performed choreography from popular music videos. There was Kim again, dancing to NewJeans’ “Hype Boy.”

One crew danced in blindfolds. One dancer performed with a rose in his mouth. The difference in quality among the crews was minuscule, with first, second and third places all separated by just one point.

The winner was Hush Crew, whose members dressed in suits and performed to aespa’s “Next Level.” Angel Padilla, a 25-year-old recruiter at a tech company, wore heels as he danced.

“Male dancing in heels should be normalized,” he said.

Dive bars, live bands, noraebangs, ’80s nights or Hello Kitty decor — there’s a karaoke bar or private room in Los Angeles for everyone.

Nov. 11, 2022

The crew is fairly new, starting in 2019 in Boston and moving to L.A. a couple years ago. But it has already garnered appearances on big Korean media outlets such as MBC.

“This year, we have definitely taken the time to grow,” Padilla said. “I am very proud of how far we have come.”

An overhead shot of a dance crew dressed in black Nike outfits performing onstage.
The dance crew Wink competed in the K-Dance competition hosted by The Times and Radio Korea at Koreatown Plaza on July 16.
(Helen Li / Los Angeles Times)

Even with the intensity of the competition, I could see how much fun people were having.

Grandmas were dancing and begging the judges to let them sing too. (Unfortunately, spots were all full by then.) People roared as performers hit that high note. Every dance performance was met by loud cheers and hooting from the crowd.

As the competitions came to a close, I was stuck by what Yeo said as he accepted his first place prize, a round-trip ticket to Seoul and $700.

“I’m thrilled,” Yeo said. “It’s the first time I’ve received a prize for something I like to do.”

Two people  stand onstage at a mall.
Host Young Kim, director of content at Radio Korea, and L.A. Times columnist Frank Shyong warm up the crowd before the street karaoke and K-Dance competition at Koreatown Plaza.
(Helen Li / Los Angeles Times)