In the Park N Shop plaza on South Main Street, between a pizzeria and a laundromat, is Hsiang K, a Chinese karaoke experience. Each room is covered in neon lights, with enough space to dance around and belt out a song in front of an audience of friends while reading lyrics from a flat-screen TV.
Hsiang K owner Xipeng “Jason” Chen met his two co-owners, Haocheng Li and Hongjie Jin, while attending the University of Delaware. They realized that no karaoke bars similar to the ones they went to in China existed in the Newark area. Hsiang K means “missing home,” a reference to how the bar provides a taste of home to other international students. Jin is still a student, while the other two owners have graduated.
“When we’re hanging out back home, we go to a karaoke place, just like this,” Li said. “Only in China, it’s bigger. We felt like we needed someplace, like back home.”
The bar has seen success despite opening in the middle of the pandemic, in part because the karaoke room experience accommodates social distancing.
In American karaoke, guests are often performing in front of the entire bar, something that isn’t possible when a pandemic makes it dangerous to take their masks off around people who aren’t in their bubble.
At Hsiang K, guests rent a private room, ensuring relative safety compared to the open floor of most bar stages. The experience is more like a house party, where instead of judging a stranger’s drunk rendition of a Lady Gaga song, guests are singing along with friends in a more intimate environment. The machines have wide-ranging song selection, featuring many international artists along with American and British pop singers.
The current audience consists mainly of students familiar with the karaoke bar concept. However, Hsiang K has made several moves to appeal to a local audience.
Chen oriented the food menu to attract a western audience. Dishes like steak fried rice, in which steakhouse-style filet mignon sits atop a plate of fried rice, combines an American steakhouse classic with a recognizable Chinese dish.
More traditional fare such as bean curd and fried buns accompany the more experimental fusion items. Along with main entrees, various skewered meats and vegetables make for a great selection of appetizers for a party. Classic cocktails, such as the mojito, also feature prominently on the menu.
“We’re trying to make a combination of the Chinese karaoke-style with American drinking culture,” Li said.
The owners invested between $600,000 and $700,000 into the business. A major challenge for the group was adjusting the differences in how American and Chinese companies do business. A bad experience with their initial project manager led to the owners redoing much of the interior, which is part of the reason why it took almost two additional years for Hsiang K to open after the planned opening in the fall of 2018.
Hsiang K offers three different sizes of karaoke rooms, which can accommodate groups of six, 12, and 25 people. The rooms are sanitized using a UV light to disinfect the area between reservations.
Chen recommends that people book a room two days in advance, especially for a weekend date. For the past two weekends, Hsiang K’s karaoke rooms were fully booked.
Chen attributed the success to word of mouth. He said customers often post photos of the bar on social media. A neon sign in the hallway from the dining room to the karaoke rooms reads “Prohibition of Drunk Driving” in English and Chinese, making for an easy photo op.
“Our first priority is to make sure all our kids here are having fun but are being safe as well,” said Chen.
The business is open from 5 p.m. to midnight, but Chen hopes to expand to include lunchtime hours soon. He also plans to add more items to the menu to cater to this future lunch crowd.
“This is a good opportunity for us,” said Chen. “This is something Newark has never had.”