A swan song

Kris Wu scandal puts KTVs back into the spotlight


Kris Wu: his evenings in karaoke lounges have put them in the news

KTV, or karaoke, has more of a reputation in China for boozing, sex and corruption than it does for a night out singing with friends and family.

Take Kris Wu, a pop singer embroiled in the most costly celebrity scandal in recent memory after accusations from young student Du Meizhu of sexual assault (see WiC550). The allegations have stirred up a number of complaints from other young women that Wu was a regular attendee at ‘concubine picking’ parties in KTV rooms.

Wu has denied doing anything unlawful. But the scandal shows little sign of receding from the public eye, with police reporting the arrest last week of a man identified by his surname Liu, who had disguised himself as a woman in a bid to make some money from the situation.

Liu tried to befriend Wu’s accuser Du, telling her that ‘she’ could help boost her social media popularity by publicising how the pop icon had treated her. Meanwhile he was also pretending to be a lawyer who could settle the case and he allegedly conned both sides into sending him money.

At least the strange twist to the story has given the public something to discuss other than Wu’s sex life. Nevertheless the scandal has also rekindled media interest in the ‘evening industry’ – a local term for karaoke parlours, or KTVs.

The first karaoke bars in China opened in Guangzhou in the 1980s, triggering a seismic change in the nightlife scene. The idea caught on quickly and there were more than 120,000 KTV operators nationwide during the 1990s peak, Beijing Youth Daily said. But then the trend started to decline, with the number of KTV businesses falling to about 64,000 as of March this year.

Covid-19 has been perilous for the KTV operators, with customer numbers said to have dropped nearly 70% last year, even as social distancing rules were gradually relaxed in the second half.

Before that the government’s anti-corruption and austerity drive – which began in earnest in 2013 – had hit KTV operators hard as well. But as pointed out this week, KTV has also suffered from a diminishing crowd of customers. Times have changed and karaoke nights aren’t fashionable anymore.

“The core customer groups for the KTV industry 20 years ago were in their 50s or 60s. Basically, this now older group of men can’t drink or even stay up overnight,” observed. “Meanwhile, young people have many different ways to entertain themselves at night, such as playing online games.”

If young people feel like singing, there are plenty of KTV apps to connect them with friends online. ‘Convenience KTV rooms’ in shopping malls (which resemble photo booths), allow couples to record their duets and share them online too.

Cashbox, a KTV chain under Taiwanese ownership, is a telling example of the industry’s steep decline. In its prime the brand had huge KTV lounges in all the major Chinese cities (see WiC278). But Cashbox said that revenues dropped to less than $360,000 in June – and that mostly came from selling outdoor advertising at its properties, rather than hiring out its karaoke rooms to groups of singers.

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