Standing in the small parking lot on a Friday night, it's obvious that Kumok Hwang's darkened restaurant is closed. But flickers of colorful light from the upstairs windows and a bright neon sign indicate something is going on above.

The hot-pink bulbs twist into one word: KARAOKE.

Mmmmm. Drunken singing. Bad '80s songs. A heckling crowd. Sounds enticing.

But up the dark stairs at the second level, there's no bar in sight. Just a hallway with four doors. Those flickers of light now swirl intensely, beaming out from each doorway.

Inside, lit by colorful disco balls, are private rooms where small groups of young Asian hipsters, mostly Korean, are doing karaoke. Rooms are rented by the hour, each equipped with a karaoke unit and a choice of 20,000 songs. As music blasts from the speakers, some patrons sit on sofas while others are up and dancing, checking themselves out in the mirrored walls. And, of course, one person is singing. Or trying to, at least.

This is how karaoke is done in Korea (and in Japan, where it originated). Boomtown Karaoke, nestled between a fire station and a Domino's Pizza near the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota, is one of two places in the Twin Cities that offer the private-room experience for karaoke lovers.

In one room tonight is 23-year-old Tomoyuki Sugano, a Boomtown regular. His group reflects the intrigue that this style of karaoke holds abroad. Nobody in the room is from the United States. Sugano, who is Japanese, is trying to show his novice friends from Lebanon and France how to sing with passion. Karaoke is taken much more seriously in Asia.

"OK, I have to stand for this one," he says before belting out a Spice Girls hit. As he rocks back and forth -- one fist gripping the mike, the other clenched against his chest -- Sugano hits the chorus hard:

" 'Cause tonight is the night, when two become ooooone!"

Karaoke, which means "empty orchestra," was invented in 1971 by a Japanese drummer. The private-room format didn't come until the mid '80s, but it quickly became the preferred style. In South Korea, which rivals Japan for its karaoke mania, there are thousands of noraebangs, or "song rooms."

Both Twin Cities noreabangs, Boomtown and Do Re Mi in Eagan, are run by Korean immigrants. And both places are patterned after the song rooms in their homeland, minus one thing: alcohol. Both owners said they prefer to skip the problems that come with serving booze.

Besides, the singing is a big stress reliever in itself, Hwang said.

Minneapolis poet and playwright Ed Bok Lee, who sings at Boomtown a few times a month, writes about the cathartic power of karaoke in his new book "Real Karaoke People: Poems and Prose." In it, he takes a philosophical view of karaoke by examining the different ways it liberates people.

"Among my friends, we don't have any professional singers, so it's really raw and open," Lee said. "And that's what I think karaoke is about. It's not about being a perfect singer. It's about baring your soul. And anybody can sing karaoke. All you need to have is a soul that needs to speak."

Back at Boomtown, after three hours of letting it all hang out, Sugano finishes off a Japanese pop song. "OK," he says, "I've had enough," and puts the mike down.

His friend, Rada Dagher, wants to do one more: ABBA's "I Have a Dream." Sugano, slouched in his seat, comments as she hits a high note: "Oh, that's good."

Afterward, she falls back onto the checkered coach, smiling, then looks at her watch: 2 a.m.

"Whoa!"

Where To Go

BOOMTOWN KARAOKE

The digs: Opened in 2003, it has four rooms, a fairly up-to-date song list in six languages and a select menu from the Korea Restaurant downstairs.

Hours: 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Sun.-Thu., 10 a.m.-4 a.m. Fri.-Sat.

Where: 221 SE. Oak St., Mpls. 612-331-1260.

Cost: Rooms are $20 per hour.

DO RE MI

The digs: Opened in 1994, it has nine rooms and more songs in more languages, but its catalog is not as current.

Hours: 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Tue. - Thu. & Sun., 6 p.m.-4 a.m. Fri.-Sat.

Where: 1977 Silver Bell Rd., Eagan. 651-405-9090.

Cost: $30 per hour for small room (seats up to 12), $40 for large room (up to 20).

 

thorgen@startribune.com • 612-673-7909