Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Karaoke a phenomenon at Ottawa gay bars

Crowds turn boisterous over singing

ONE OF A KIND. China Doll, aka Edward Kwan, illuminates Shanghai with his drag karaoke every Saturday before turning the mic over to customers. Credit: (Christina Riley)

Is it possible to sing your winter blues away? Many wannabe rock stars in Ottawa’s gay bars sure think so. Karaoke nights are quickly becoming the hot place to be to melt that arctic depression away.

Voted Ottawa’s number one karaoke bar by Xpress readers, Somerset St’s Shanghai restaurant offers a comfortable atmosphere each day and some colourful characters guaranteed to blow those Canadian Idol warblers away each Saturday night.

“Karaoke brings out the best in people. It’s a joy to see smiles on people’s faces,” says Ed Kwan aka “China Doll,” MC of Shanghai’s karaoke nights. “It’s the thing to do in Ottawa right now. It has a life beyond the shower.”

Always decked out in outlandish and fun attire, China Doll works alongside host Carmen (who has been described as Canada’s Andy Warhol), to ensure Saturday nights at the Shanghai have all the glitz of Sin City.

“You don’t need to go to Las Vegas; Las Vegas is already here in your own backyard,” China Doll laughs.

Family-owned and operated and serving Ottawa since 1971, the Shanghai – also well-known for its trans Divergence parties – has kicked up so much attention that a National Film Board documentary about the establishment is now in pre-production.

Born into the family that owns Shanghai, Kwan also moonlights as the restaurant’s head chef, occasionally losing a few ostrich feathers from his clothes to the kitchen’s stove. China Doll’s inspirations include legendary drag queens Lady Bunny and RuPaul.

To help raise funds for Shanghai’s karaoke nights, the restaurant sells calendars for $10, and in turn the buyer will receive $10 worth of karaoke credit.

Ed’s brother Don says that Shanghai’s karaoke breaks gender stereotypes.

“It definitely introduces people to karaoke that’s not typical,” Don says with a straight face.

Cornering the karaoke market in the rest of Ottawa’s gay bars, Dog & Pony Sound caters to vocal attention seekers at Swizzles on Monday, Tuesday and Friday nights and at the Lookout on Wednesday nights.

With an extensive library of songs to choose from, Xpress readers have voted Dog & Pony the best karaoke company for the five years it’s been operating. They have their own following of some 50 regulars that follow them from bar to bar. Dog & Pony’s song “bible” lists tunes as varied as the Jackass soundtrack and Disney standards. The bible also outlines karaoke tips and techniques to aid the singer, so your voice is the only way you’ll be made into a fool.

Owner and operator Christopher Doyle is the “Dog” in their company name while his wife, Danni, is the “Pony.”

“I’m the dirty dog who gets to ride the pony,” Doyle chuckles.

He says he prefers working at gay bars because of the boisterous crowd.

That’s an understatement the night this writer visits Swizzles. As a singer belts out Madonna’s “Hanky Panky” a roar of applause sweeps through the mixed crowd each time the song’s title is sung.

Suzanne Carte is one Swizzles patron who loves the freedom that comes with karaoke.

“I love how it allows you to be silly and stupid,” Carte says. “Everybody wants to be in the limelight. Even if you fucking suck, karaoke allows you to fucking suck. Karaoke is what reminds you that you can’t sing, this is the reality check.”

Carte does, however, point out that alcohol fuels the flames of karaoke’s enjoyment. “It is the most annoying thing when you’re sober,” she laughs.

Although Dog & Pony are behind Lookout’s karaoke night as well, the younger crowd that flocks to Lookout gives karaoke a different twist.

Martin Guay, 23, prefers karaoke night at Lookout because it draws a younger crowd than other bars. “I like just to come and socialize with people and to see what people can do. It’s just interesting; some are bad and some are good. I prefer Lookout because it’s closer to my age.”

Most songs selected at Lookout are recent releases by artists such as Bif Naked and Franz Ferdinand. In contrast, the current favourite of Shanghai’s China Doll is Etta James.

Whatever your favourite music style, there’s a karaoke mic awaiting you. And with another month of winter-like weather left, it’s an unbeatable way to pass the time.

“The winter is so long; you can’t hibernate, get out there and have some fun,” says China Doll.