On Saturday nights in New York City, the streets buzz as people file into the hottest clubs and newest restaurants. The streets of Seoul, Korea are alive on weekend nights too, as young folks head down the city’s main thoroughfares, filling numerous narrow alleys. But unlike in New York City, Seoul’s lively hordes aren’t looking for what we New Yorkers regard as typical nightlife establishments. Much more likely, Seoulites are seeking a noraebang.
A noraebang is a Korean bar focused on one of the more popular forms of entertainment in the country: Karaoke. Many a noraebang is open 24 hours. Much like New York City hotspots, noraebangs are decorated luxuriously and offer enticing amenities: Oversized leather couches fill marble clad rooms lit by the bright yet subtle glow of crystal chandeliers. Brand new big screen televisions are a must. But unlike the New Yorker club-goer who orders bottle service to get drunk and muster up the courage to hit the dance floor, patrons of noraebangs drink to get the tunes flowing.
While living in Seoul, I became quite fond of these palaces of musical ineptitude. There’s something about belting one’s heart out to 80’s rock with friends and some soju at one’s side that makes for an incredibly satisfying evening out. Luckily for me, living in Manhattan means that I can revisit this experience because one can literally find anything and everything within this city, no matter where on earth it originated.
Around 32nd Street between the 5th and 6th Avenue corridors, Koreatown takes me right back to the streets of Seoul. As in the Asian capital, the neighborhood is defined by buildings stacked high with Korean establishments, from smoky barbecue spots to lively beer hofs. Koreans tend to build up, and so do those who have settled in Koreatown, New York. Hidden on the upper floors of these midtown buildings are my beloved noraebangs. And as in my one-time home of Seoul, they are are jam-packed with revelers belting out tunes until the wee hours.
The spirit of a noraebang is unlike any typical New York club. Rather than who you know, it’s who you’re with that matters; egos are checked at the door. Whether you chose to sing your heart out in the community space or to rent a private room, noraebangs are about letting lose, having fun and embracing the scene. They’re not about impressing anyone—a good thing, since we all know how well the average person can sing.
It’s easy to get caught up in the glitz and glamour of New York City, and to fixate on chasing whatever’s ”new” in nightlife. Daily newspapers and magazines feed the beast with constant gossip, decreeing who and what is fashionable. In the midtown microcosm that is Koreatown, it’s possible to leave that superficial world behind and to focus on having a good time. Koreans and Korean-Americans have transformed a few New York City blocks into an escape route to Seoul.
Two of my favorite K-town noreabangs:
Radio Star Karaoke: 3 West 35th Street, 212 564 2520, Mon-Wed 3pm-2am, Thurs-Sat 3pm-4am, Sun 4PM-12AM
Grand Karaoke: 23 West 32nd Street, 212 629 7171, Mon-Sun 2PM-6AM
*Originally published on NewYorkNatives.com on May 13, 2013. To read this and other stories from my Around the World in 5 Boroughs column, click here.