How we wowed 'em in China

Almost as soon as our plane landed in Shanghai, Marilyn reminded me to keep an eye out for karaoke. It was on her "to do" list. Back home, she'd been introduced to it by her company's CEO, who was Japanese. Understandably, karaoke became the featured entertainment at every company party. And now Marilyn wanted to experience it near the land of its beginnings.

We visited the temples and gardens of Shanghai, the Freedom Walk, and a flea market. We floated along the canals in Suzhou and rented bikes for an early-morning excursion to a nearby university. We even managed to buy a made-to-order suit for Marilyn in a breathless 24-hour shopping spree.

But karaoke eluded us.

Obviously, the Chinese love music. Grand pianos were in hotel lobbies everywhere, and I played them frequently, filling in for nonexistent piano-bar musicians. We even did an impromptu sing-along with fellow travelers at the Shanghai railway station.

Then we took an overnight train to the hometown of Confucius. There, during a temple tour, Marilyn and I were unexpectedly delayed. My white hair, and my sister's nearly-so, invariably drew attention to us as ancient worthies. Chinese families were eager to photograph us with their children.

The first parent had approached us shyly, miming his request. But then others followed, and soon there was a lineup of expectant shutterbugs. Agreeably, our tour moved on without us.

After dinner that evening, when someone mentioned that there was a street festival nearby, my sister and I decided to check it out. Thousands of people had gathered to celebrate China's National Day holiday, but apparently we were the only foreign ancient worthies sauntering along this particular street.

A woman stepped from the crowd and motioned for us to follow. Marilyn and I conferred briefly and decided it was OK. We'd heard that there was an outdoor billiard parlor nearby. Maybe that's where the guide was taking us.

Soon we came to a grassy area, circled by perhaps a couple of hundred holiday celebrants. It was an outdoor karaoke fest, and our guide, obviously a businesswoman with an eye for talent, had targeted us as the next attraction.

The deejay showed us a list of songs from which to select, but to our dismay we didn't recognize a single one. The titles were in English, but we'd never heard of them before. Were they perhaps Chinese songs with English titles?

What a dilemma. Here was the opportunity of a lifetime, but it looked as though we'd have to pass it up. The audience was holding its collective breath to see what would happen. Loath to disappoint any audience, I suddenly had an idea: "Let's sing a cappella!"

We each grabbed a mike and moved to center stage. Waving off the deejay, we began with "Getting to Know You" and moved on to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," "Home on the Range," and "Happy Birthday to You."

Stumped for another song that would be familiar to our appreciative and ever-expanding audience, Marilyn suggested "God Bless America." I thought that would be pushing it.

Just then, a member of the audience came to our rescue. "Ding, ding, ding ... ding, ding, ding ... ding, DING, ding da-ding," he sang to the tune of "Jingle Bells"!

Applause and smiling faces prevailed as we strutted our stuff. Then the deejay suddenly launched into a loud disco piece. It was probably meant as a hint that we should pack it in. But at the time, flushed with success, we obligingly danced to the music. It was as close as we'll ever come to a Shirley Temple routine. Who needs dimples and curls?

We were so busy entertaining, we quite forgot that we were paying guests. This was a for-profit enterprise, and our tab came to the equivalent of $10. It didn't even occur to us to dicker on the price. Marilyn had just experienced a karaoke event worth reporting to any chief executive, and we'd sung for our largest audience ever – possibly inspiring countless versions of this event to wend their way into Chinese folklore. It was the best $10 we spent on the entire tour.

But why hadn't it occurred to me to pass the hat?

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