Stephen Yung works seven days a week. During the weekdays, he works at a hotel on 52nd Street and Madison and then goes home to Flushing, Queens to balance an on-line sales business with his wife Fanny. When the weekend hits, you can find him on the karaoke stage at Asia Roma, cuing up the next song, lowering the key for you on that Diana Ross song, or belting out a teary Chinese love ballad. He’s been a KJ or karaoke jockey at Asia Roma for over 15 years. During our interview, Stephen told me that Asia Roma has been around in Manhattan Chinatown for a while. According to his memory, during the late 1980’s when he immigrated to the US from Hong Kong, it was only one of a few restaurant karaoke businesses in the area. Now, he estimates that there are a little over 50 karaoke bars in Chinatown, adding “much more competition.” When I asked him how he felt about the influx of karaoke options, he felt unconcerned because of their loyal Chinese customer base who come regularly on weeknights. He adds that during weekends, you can expect more “Americans” or English speakers taking the stage at Asia Roma.
Asia Roma is an Italian Asian restaurant and karaoke bar located on Mulberry Street next to Columbus Park. When you walk in, you’ll see a neon sign illuminating ‘karaoke’ above a set of steep stairs descending to the basement. The basement karaoke is cozy with an elevated stage in the front. I was initially surprised to hear how long Asia Roma has been around, for a little over 20 years, mostly due to my experience with the decor and feel of the space; for example, they have a bathroom sink that is literally a slab of stylish cement, trés modern, right? But this is because the restaurant has gone through multiple renovations and makeovers to attract the younger clientele of 20-something’s like myself who have a sudden hankering to sing Jewel or Green Day. What I find really awesome is that this change is implemented in a way that is not alienating to the regulars, the fiercely loyal Chinese customers, who like Stephen, understand how karaoke melts tension, and is a $1.00/song, heart and soul massage amidst a difficult week. Before Stephen became a part-time KJ, he was exactly his clientele, coming to Asia Roma almost daily, for a quick sing-song afternoon break or nighttime good time to share with his wife and friends. One day the owner approached him and said, “Stephen, you sing a lot, you should be part-time DJ for me.” He accepted and works till this day with the owner’s daughter, Mae. With a smile, he explains, “I’m not a KJ, more like a friend, sitting, having a good time.”
Stephen has customers who have been coming back for 10-12 years. It’s not a surprise. In addition to having an energetic and curious soul, he’s committed to a high level of care, thoughtfulness, and faith in one’s individual style. Stephen’s KJ ethos is simple: Learn more songs, teach songs, style will follow, and there is no standard. To this last principle, he adds, waxing poetic, one must “know the melody in your heart.” Stephen catalyzes translations and flair among friends and strangers; he encourages his customers to try something new, understanding the transformative experience of inhabiting a foreign song, whether that difference be made up in language, emotion, or genre.
When I go to Asia Roma, I can always expect a confrontation of various musical milieus, faces, and accents. A richness that’s often nonexistent in the karaoke scenes developing near Union Square or Greenwich Village. Furthermore, karaoke jockeys like Stephen, a veteran in Chinatown nightlife, negotiate and intervene soundscape change which is correlated to daytime gentrification and changing tenants. With the scribbled requests he receives in the plastic bucket and regardless of who trickles in for the evening, Stephen gauges and tunes the karaoke, ensuring that it will always resonate for the singers who’ve been there the longest.
Stephen speaks about style and the personalization of song: