Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge: Where No One Knows Your Name and Mama Calls You “Honey.”
“Here we are.” The driver pulled over and I looked around for a sign.
There it was nestled next door to a late night massage parlor in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a small blue awning with neon letters announced it to the passersby— Bow Bow Cocktails.
We exited the car and crossed the street, it was early, by bar standards, on a Friday night, and there were a couple of people standing outside.
My karaoke partner in crime, Selena, and I walked inside and were immediately covered in the warm glow of the Christmas lights and red paper lanterns that hung from the ceiling. It was dimly lit, the crisscross of stringed lights offering the most illumination. The bar was cluttered with empty beer bottles and bowls of peanuts and people were clustered around the stools chatting and trying to get the bartender’s attention.
After the initial overload of color and sound we were surprised by how small it was. There was the entry door, the bar, enough space to stand behind, in front of, and to the side of the bar and that was about it.
We walked towards the back of the room and took a seat at the far end of the bar near the TV. There was a simple karaoke set up, similar to something you would find in a private room karaoke bar, a small system controlled by punching in the codes to songs via remote control. Nothing fancy.
It was self-serve karaoke KJ-ing, and there was a group of people already singing to their hearts’ content.
We sat at the bar looking through the songbook and waiting for the bartender to make her way over. Mama, she called herself, came over and took our drink orders. I watched as she filled each glass with alcohol and then topped it off with a shot of soda. It seemed like all of her drinks would be poured in a similar fashion. She was a small, older Asian woman, with a thick accent and an affinity for calling everyone “Honey.”
“I don’t know their names. I just call them, ‘Honey.’” It worked for us.
I decided I was going to sing. My only issue was trying to get access to the remote control in order to punch in my song. La Bamba, if anyone was interested.
I mostly enjoy singing “soy capitán, soy capitán,” over and over.
The group that had the main control of the TV noticed me come over with the song book and asked me my song number so they could punch it in. At least it wasn’t too difficult to get my song in but it felt like a combination of private room and regular karaoke combined, which was a different from other karaoke experiences.
No list of names and waiting to see if your song was going to be played or not. No KJ to try to woo over or tip, only Mama behind the bar serving up drinks and freely distributing bowls of peanuts and pistachios.
After my song she gave me a fresh bowl of pistachios, because Mama likes to take care of her patrons.
We watched her flit around the bar from guest to guest. At a certain point shooing away a rowdy Australian tourist who commandeered the karaoke machine and then pulling out a can of air freshener when a group of pot enthusiasts made their way into the bar filling it with the unappealing scent of marijuana and dirty human and spraying the bar while making pointed remarks about the smell.
As we were getting to leave she saw that a friend of ours that had joined us was done with his beer and she poured him a shot. “Here you go, on the house.” She then came and poured Selena and I one, “don’t worry honey, Mama didn’t forget you.” We took our shots, paid our bill, and headed out in search of more karaoke.
I don’t know if I’d go back again for the purposes of karaoke-ing but I’d definitely go back because watching Mama in action was an experience in and of itself.
Jenn and Elizabeth say: Karaoke is a national treasure. What do you prefer? American style (in front of lots of people) or Japanese style (private rooms)? We are dying to know. Also, let us know your favorite place for dive bar karaoke in your city!