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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 May, 2004, 12:55 GMT 13:55 UK
Made in Taiwan: Karaoke cabs

By Chris Hogg
BBC correspondent, Taiwan

Think what fun it would be singing along to your favourite tunes on the way home in a taxi. In Taipei it is certainly all the rage.

Over 500 taxi drivers fill an open park in support of President Chen Shui-bian in March 2004, in Taipei
It is impossible to tell whether your taxi is a karaoke cab at first glance

In the nine months since I arrived in Asia I have had the opportunity to sample many of the best bits of life here.

On Saturday mornings my Chinese friends take me for breakfast in the tiny café at the bottom of the road.

I plant myself precariously on the kind of small plastic stool I last sat on in kindergarten and wolf down instant noodles, pork and buns, before the matriarch, who rules the joint, throws us out so she can pack the next lot of hungry locals inside.

I have had my fortune told by the Feng Shui man who came to the office at Christmas. Apparently I have too much water in my sign.

The solution is to wear red underwear every day and carry a picture of a tiger in my wallet. Oh, and a small jade horse has to be carried at all times.

Am I any luckier? Not so far, but then again I lost the horse after three weeks and red pants every day of the week was a step too far.

'Pernicious pastime'

There is one aspect of life here, though, which fills me with horror.

It is an activity shared by young and old, conducive to the conduct of good business or simply a means of relaxing with your friends.

I have done my utmost to avoid any situation where I might have to take part and until recently had a 100% success rate. The torture that I am talking about is karaoke.

Paul Chan, an Elvis Presley impersonator
'Please Release Me'

They love it here. Karaoke bars flourish across Asia. Even Sars could not destroy the industry.

Little sterilised caps were just slipped over the top of the microphones for each new performer in Hong Kong's karaoke joints.

They even have them in saunas, I am told. So you can sweat and sing.

But I hate it. I am a rubbish singer. I get embarrassed at my lack of voice. I regard it as a hideous experience designed to humiliate the performer and assault the ears of their audience.

Last week I was in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei. At the end of a long day's work, my colleagues and I had piled into a restaurant for a late bite to eat.

When we had finished and paid the bill we went outside and flagged down a passing cab. From the outside it looked quite normal. Inside it was a cab quite unlike any other.

Chen Ming Jung drives a karaoke cab.

It is a modern saloon car, but on the dashboard between the driver and the front passenger is a TV screen.

Now you do see these from time to time in newer cars, but normally they house an onboard navigational computer.

Mr Chen uses his for a more pernicious pastime. He encourages his passengers to enjoy a spot of karaoke while he drives them from A to B.

'Woeful warbling'

The kind of images you see in advertisements for chocolates or cars float across the screen. They are mainly women in impractical ball dresses on windswept mountains, or on the beach looking wistfully out to sea.

Map of Taiwan

Not a pair of sensible shoes in sight.

Along the bottom of the screen the Chinese characters for the words of the song were illuminated one by one so that the passengers could join in. There were no microphones but there was no need really.

Cocooned in the luxury motor, the soundproofing protected you from the noise of the traffic and you could belt out the tunes to your heart's content.

Unlike the taxi drivers you see in Beijing or some other big cities around the world, Mr Chen was not protected in a plastic shell or behind a cage.

In truth he was a man of few words. He has no doubt been subjected to the woeful warbling of many hundreds of his passengers, and it seems to have taken its toll.

He chose the car which came with the karaoke system, though. And he explained why. It was good for business, he said.

Safe and sound?

Mr Chen just stared impassively at the road as my companions joined in with their own unique performances.

On the one hand it is a brilliant idea. Mr Chen drives only at night when many of his passengers are drunk and potentially disorderly.

There is nothing like a bit of a sing-song to improve the chances of a trouble-free journey home.

In providing them with the words, the music and a video to watch, Mr Chen is doing his best to make sure harmony of some sort or other is maintained inside his vehicle.

On the other hand, as a passenger who has been subjected to the full volume of my colleagues' attempts to sing the Taiwanese classics, I would argue it is a dangerous development which should not be allowed to spread beyond these shores.

Think about it. You are stuck in a small box hurtling through the streets unable to escape. And what is particularly devious about the whole plan is that Mr Chen's vehicle does not carry any warning markings.

Unsuspecting passengers can be in the cab, belted up and well on the way to their destination before they realise what is happening.

If karaoke cabs are introduced more widely, earplugs should be carried at all times, just in case you are unfortunate enough to come across one.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 29 May, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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