Performing arts in Hong Kong

Karaoke contest puts the fun in arbitration, as litigants use songs to make their case before a bona fide judge – and it’s coming to Hong Kong

Can’t decide where to have dinner? Sick of mum’s curfew? You need Karaoke Court, unconventional but legally binding arbitration; dreamed up by an arts-loving Singaporean lawyer, it’s coming to Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2018, 6:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2018, 6:31pm

Take a real-life arbitration process in front of a bona fide judge, add a jury-audience and cases heard through the medium of song and you have Karaoke Court.

And it’s coming to Hong Kong, a city where karaoke regularly hits fever pitch, on August 22 at Duddell’s 4/F Salon and Terrace in Central.

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Participants sign an arbitration contract and the court’s decisions are legally binding. The fun part is when litigants sing their cases, whether it’s a dispute about where to go on the next family holiday or where friends should eat for dinner.

The concept is the brainchild of Singaporean Jack Tan, who wanted to explore the connection between society, law and art.

“Karaoke Court was inspired by the way different societies and subcultures have managed disputes through artistic expression, such as the origins of hip-hop, the Maltese song duel and of course the more famous Eskimo/Inuit song duel,” he says. Inuit litigants traditionally present grievances to their communities for judgment in the form of humorous and satirical song.

This non-Western and non-establishment system of conflict resolution appealed to Tan.

“While our normal way of doing law in courts is adversarial, antagonistic and serious, Karaoke Court as a binding arbitration process tries to make cooperation, empathy and humour the fundamental basis for litigation. This artwork is a way of reimagining a … basis for law.”

Tan was born into a typical Asian family where, he says, career options were limited to lawyer, doctor, engineer or accountant. He chose a legal path, earning a law degree at the University of Hull in England in the 1990s, before joining a commercial law firm as a trainee solicitor, where he campaigned on issues including racism and domestic violence.

“At the end of my training, instead of taking [up] a job offer in the firm’s litigation department, I went to art school and studied ceramics and sculpture. Nowadays, my love of law and art are combined,” he says.

Tan says while Karaoke Court is fun, the disputes are real.

“Even if some cases seem trivial, they symbolise real longstanding irritations or challenges in the singer-litigants’ relationships.”

Even if some cases seem trivial, they symbolise real longstanding irritations or challenges in the singer-litigants’ relationships
Jack Tan

Tan says one of his favourite disputes was during a session in Singapore in 2015, when a woman in her late twenties brought a case against her mother for imposing a daily 10pm curfew on her since she was a teenager.

“The issue here was a lack of trust. The daughter sang Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and the mum sang The Carpenters’ Close To You. Funnily enough, the mum won, despite most of the jury being around the daughter’s age.

“The curfew was relaxed after the Karaoke Court hearing, even though the mother won and it was her right to formally impose the curfew under the terms of the arbitration contract.

“This kind of graciousness by the winner happens a lot. That’s the real power of litigating via performance and song.”

For Karaoke Court Hong Kong, two cases will be heard:

Case no: 1 – Zoe loves mornings and breakfast. But her friend Hin prefers hanging out at night and never eats breakfast. They can’t agree on a good time to hang out.

Case no: 2 – Two friends who are both artists will sing about “whether contemporary art is dead”.

The court will be presided over by Symon Wong Yu-wing, a former Hong Kong magistrate.

Karaoke Court, August 22, 6.30-10pm, Duddell’s, Level 3, Shanghai Tang Mansion, 1 Duddell Street, Central.

Tickets to join the jury (audience) are HK$300 per person, and include a dim sum dinner and drink. Those registering as singer-litigants will attend as guests. More details here: