It’s a Friday night in Garden Grove, and Cafeoke Ding Dong Dang is hopping.
A lively group of 20-something Orange Coast College students wait in the lobby, and then manager Howie Lee escorts them to a large, darkened room with an extended vinyl couch and a multicolored disco ball on the ceiling. A large widescreen TV beckons, and several thick, black songbooks are nearly bursting with melodic possibilities in Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and English.
One of the students plunks a song choice in a Korean-lettered remote control, and the background music chimes in, without the vocals. The lyrics run on the bottom of the screen, she sings at the top of her lungs, and a weird, totally unrelated video plays on the TV.
Within minutes, several of the students are singing and shouting “All Star” by Smash Mouth, and almost magically, that week’s stress melts away. “Hey now, you’re a rock star, get the show on, get paid…"
This is the noraebang, or private karaoke singing room. In Korean, “noraebang” literally translates to “song room.”
With the growth of the Korean Business District in Garden Grove — known unofficially as “Little Seoul” — as well as burgeoning Korean populations in Fullerton, La Habra, Buena Park, La Palma and Irvine, Asian-themed entertainment, food and beverage offerings have also been on the rise.
One of the most popular gathering places is the noraebang, where visitors can sing with the help of an amplified sound system to their hearts’ content until 2 a.m. at most of the establishments.
Visitors are charged from $20 an hour for a small room for four to $80 for a large room (13 to 25 people). Those rates don’t include drinks and food. And some venues push the prices higher during peak, high-demand times, though half-off happy hour discounts are also available.
For most people, it’s innocent fun, though for-hire party girls, or “doumi girls,” sometimes linked to prostitution, have been known to frequent noraebangs in Los Angeles’ Koreatown.
“The most interesting thing about it is just the atmosphere,” said Dandre Ignacio, 26, of Fullerton while taking a break at Imperial/The Plus Karaoke in La Habra. “It’s very festive and almost whimsical. The walls are bright, highlighter orange. There’s night deejay lights going on in all the rooms. And frankly, there’s loud people singing.
“It’s a little obnoxious, but I can appreciate the fact that they don’t care. Their inhibitions are gone, and so for that matter, that pushes me to just break out and stop being so self-conscious about myself.”
Some noraebangs, like Imperial/The Plus and Ziller Karaoke & Bar in Fullerton, serve alcohol (beer, wine and soju) and a wide variety of Korean and American snacks. The Plus offers French fries, onion rings, cheese sticks and Korean favorites such as ramen, yangnyeom (seasoned fried) chicken, dried squid and tteokbokki (hot and spicy rice cake).
Others, such as Cafeoke Ding Dong Dang, don’t have liquor licenses, but they may serve sodas, energy drinks and coffee.
“They come in here to sober up after the soju bars around here,” said Lee, the son of the owner of Cafeoke Ding Dong Dang, which has been in business for more than 30 years.
While technically the nonalcoholic noraebangs are not allowed to have alcohol on the premises, some will turn a blind eye if patrons sneak some in. At the same time, drinking is not a requirement, especially for the underage crowd.
“I don’t need to be drunk to have fun,” said Misa Kieu, 20, of Fountain Valley. She’s studying natural science at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa and says she has visited noraebangs “too many times” over the years.
“Most of the time, I just go to sing with my friends and joke around. I’m part Japanese, so I have some of it in my culture. I’m not too shy about my singing, especially if I’m around a bunch of people and it’s a really loud song.”
Asian pastime catches on
Karaoke is widely traced to 1970s Japan, where the karaoke machine was invented. In the 1980s and ‘90s, it traveled across Asia and to the United States. In the early ‘90s, Koreans “privatized” the karaoke experience, creating the noraebang. Currently, there are more than 30,000 noraebangs doing business in South Korea, according to the Korea Herald.
Los Angeles, home of the largest population of Koreans outside the Korean Peninsula, became a natural breeding ground for noraebangs, with Koreatown having the highest concentration. Since Orange County has Little Seoul and the second-highest population of Koreans of any county in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the noraebang trend naturally filtered south.
Noraebangs have been popular among Korean Americans, but they’re also catching on with Vietnamese and Chinese Americans, Caucasians searching for something to do after Korean barbecue, Latinos and others who just love to sing.
And with the rise of Korean pop music and culture, or K-Pop, there seems to be no limit to the spread of the noraebang. Yelp lists more than a dozen in Orange County, from Stanton to Anaheim to Irvine, with names like Octave 18, Idol, B & G and OK 501.
“White people and all different races are singing K-Pop,” Lee said. “They’re huge K-Pop fans. They’re singing G-Dragon, EXO and they’re all singing in Korean. It’s pretty shocking.”
Athena Pesons, 26, of Brea said she recently attended a Bigbang concert and would sing “any Bigbang song, especially ‘Bang Bang Bang.’ ”
Chris Luckenbach of Lake Forest enjoys going to noraebangs with friends. He usually sings metal and grunge songs, with some Monkees and Beatles thrown in. He says he doesn’t feel out of place at all.
“It’s definitely Asian-themed, but everybody’s welcome there, and it’s a lot of fun,” said the 37-year-old video game artist as he stood outside Plush in Irvine. “Karaoke was invented by the Japanese and adopted by everybody else. So it’s pretty widespread.”
A Dark Side
The seedier side to the noraebang can’t be ignored. The doumi girls in Koreatown encourage patrons to consume expensive bottles of alcohol — a misdemeanor in L.A. — and possibly engage in drugs and prostitution. Last year, between March and November, the Los Angeles Police Department’s Olympic division made 25 arrests involving seven clubs.
(Listen to the Effit podcast on iTunes, episode 112, and you’ll hear guys reminisce about the doumi girls in the noraebangs of Koreatown. There is much talk of drug use and sexual activity.)
According to the Brea, Buena Park, Garden Grove, Fullerton and La Habra police departments, no arrests for such activities have occurred at noraebangs in those cities over the past several years.
“We have not had any complaints recently of prostitution, drugs or girls soliciting guys to buy drinks,” said Lt. Ed Leiva, head of undercover and intelligence officers for the Garden Grove Police Department. He said he has visited South Korea, and he’s familiar with the noraebangs and what can go on in them.
“We investigate everything,” he said. “I’m familiar with the way they’re laid out, with the individual rooms. But we haven’t had any complaints.”
Cafeoke Ding Dong Dang manager Lee says the doumi girls may have come down to Orange County once in a while upon private request, but they primarily stick to Koreatown.
“It’s calmer here,” he said. “There’s less money here. In Koreatown, young people are out drinking every week. There’s the party life, the city life. Orange County is more suburban, with teenagers, families, that kind of thing.”
A ‘Recipe for Fun’
In the meantime, noraebangs in Orange County continue to attract wannabe crooners, from teenagers just getting off school to businessmen blowing off steam to grandmas and grandpas looking for a diversion.
Hits from the 1980s remain popular (“Don’t stop, believin'…"), but patrons mostly pick from the 1990s to the present day, as well as chart toppers in Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Russian.
“Every drunk person wants to be in the spotlight,” said Grace Lee, 27, of Fullerton. “Drinks plus the spotlight is a good recipe for fun. Any person who is intoxicated will love that recipe.”
Lee says she’s not bothered by the price of the rooms.
“It’s comparable to other things that you spend money on,” said the behavioral interventionist. “I’d rather sing than go and listen to a deejay, to be honest. Sing and be silly, not sing like I mean it.”
Anthony Chavira, 37, of Pomona concurs.
“I love it,” said the former Brea resident. “It’s good times. The atmosphere is great. As it grows more and more, we’re just having fun. You can let loose.”
NORAEBANG ETIQUETTE: Do’s and don’ts
•Don’t hog the mic. Alternate and give other people a chance to sing.
•Don’t sing over someone else’s song. There’s usually a second microphone, but that doesn’t mean you should croon into it every time. Your friend chose the song for a reason. Even if it’s “Your Song” by Elton John, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s your song.
•Don’t depress everyone with sad songs, one after another. It’s OK to sing heartbreak ballads every once in a while, but remember, people are at the noraebang to have a good time. Mix it up and sing an upbeat tune that people can sing along and shake their tambourines to.
•Do have fun. Why else are you there?
•Do participate. Muster your courage and sing! Don’t sit in the corner by yourself.
•Do cancel your song if everyone seems bored with your selection.
•Do get up and dance. Dance like no one is watching, which is most likely the case, except for your handful of friends, who don’t care about your bad moves anyway.
•Do tip your server. He or she is probably working for close to minimum wage.