The private singing rooms, which seat up to 20 people and sometimes have locking doors and no windows or security cameras, are increasingly being used as fronts for prostitution, drug use, gambling and alcohol consumption among minors, police say.
The San Mateo City Council voted Tuesday to impose a temporary ban on the private rooms in this Silicon Valley suburb, but karaoke fans contend the fears of crime are overblown.
They say the private karaoke rooms are a godsend for shy singers, and are used much more often for birthday parties and private reunions than any lurid affairs in San Mateo County, where one of every four residents is of Asian descent.
"Essentially what we have is a cultural clash," said Jeff Kim of San Francisco, an attorney and friend of Steven Lin, who wants to add private rooms to his karaoke club, Fusia Dining Lounge. "The council's intention is not to be discriminatory, but that's exactly the result."
San Mateo Police Chief Susan Manheimer said she's not trying to silence karaoke, which has spread throughout Asia, the United States and Europe since Japanese club owners popularized it in the 1970s. But she said research her department has conducted has shown private karaoke rooms have been used for "quite a few illicit activities."
One man in South San Francisco lost $50,000 in one night in a private room that doubled as a gambling den, police said.
San Francisco police found a man shot to death outside a club in December, and arrested patrons on prostitution charges at another karaoke club in July 2000.
Karaoke bars are mainstays of nightlife districts throughout Asia. Japan alone has an estimated 100,000 karaoke "boxes." But Asian authorities also have been scrutinizing the clubs.
In Vietnam, police made karaoke clubs a target in a national campaign to reduce the number of drug addicts. In Hong Kong, officials are concerned that karaoke clubs are haunted by users of the illegal drug ketamine. Cambodia is so concerned with drug use and unsafe sex among karaoke singers that officials there held a workshop to discuss the spread of AIDS in karaoke venues.
In San Mateo, after residents complained about fights spilling out of a karaoke club, the city hired a land use expert to draft a new entertainment ordinance. He determined that private rooms encouraged people "to behave with no moral obligation to the larger audience," and recommended a ban.
The ordinance approved Tuesday gives the city 45 days to assess the alleged links between karaoke and crime before approving or rejecting Lin's application for a permit to add four private rooms to Fusia's second floor.
Lin, 31, a Taiwanese-American restaurateur, said the delay could bankrupt him, his mother and partners, who have invested about $800,000. The 5-month-old club needs income from private lounges, which he said would have glass windows and security cameras.
San Francisco resident Walter Lei, who attended the council meeting, said banning private rooms over crime fears would be like permanently closing the Golden Gate Bridge over terrorist threats.
"You can't shut down one business because other businesses have had criminal activity — that's discrimination," said Lei, who frequents private rooms because, he says, his voice is so bad that everyone except his wife leaves the room when he sings.