KBox combines singing and culture

The familiar brown apartment building located on 214 S. Craig St. has recently become home to KBox, a karaoke house and business venture.

It’s purpose is to strengthen the Asian community of Pittsburgh.

The idea of the karaoke house was conceived in the fall of 2011 in Finger Lakes, New York, when 12 Chinese students — nine from Carnegie Mellon and three from University of Pittsburgh — were brainstorming a place in which Chinese students in need of a cultural haven could gather.

What began as an effort to gather Chinese students evolved into an attempt to bring together students from all Asian countries.

One year later, their idea came to life through the founding of KBox.

Inside the KBox building, rooms are decked with the latest sound systems, plush couches, and LCD TVs.

One of the co-founders, Huiman Tan — a Ph.D student in engineering and public policy — wanted a place where “Chinese students can gather, socialize, relax, re-connect with their culture.”

Other co-founders include ’11 alumna Min Luo, information management systems master’s student Pei Xiong, master’s student in the Language Technologies Institute Duo Ding, Ph.D. student in the Robotics Institute Hua Zhong, and Ph.D. student in the Language and Technologies Insititute Long Qin.

“Students from China find it difficult to make friends in the U.S.,” said Tan. “They seek other Chinese students and familiar sources of entertainment.... So we came up with KBox, because Chinese people love to sing, and creating a place where they can gather to do that makes it easy for Chinese students to meet other Chinese students.”

The rest of the co-founders agreed with Tan that Carnegie Mellon’s Chinese Scholar and Student Association was not enough of a social hub for them to interact with other Chinese students, since they only “organized parties dedicated to major, traditional Chinese holidays.”

After a trial opening in August 2012, KBox officially opened up to the public on Sept. 16, and is now a growing business venture.

Their mission statement is to “create an entertainment house where students from all cultural backgrounds can gather to sing in private karaoke rooms,” Tan said.

“With more than 90k songs — 76k Chinese songs and 15k English songs and 8k Korean songs — we hope to make it a haven not just for Asian students but also for students who just want to blow off steam.”

Coming up with the idea of a karaoke house was only the first step.

After solidifying their idea, the founders had to find a location for a karaoke house, buy a building, receive a building permit, and find a contractor.

Having found a house on Craig Street after three months of searching, the co-founders then faced problems receiving a zoning permit from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Building Inspection, a necessary requirement for opening business in the building.

Tan said that the trouble with receiving a zoning permit which lasted for two months was enough of a dilemma for her co-founders and her to think that “their project would be killed.”

According to Tan, the founders had issues with Oakland’s building inspectors, since there weren’t enough hired inspectors to check all of the buildings in the area, including theirs. After research in building codes, Zhong “was able to argue his way with the license officer to get a license for starting a business in their building on South Craig Street,” Tan said.

“[KBox] had no money to hire lawyers like other big entrepreneurs, so Zhong studied [the] building codes of several states.... It took a lot of effort, research, and perseverance for Zhong to get a license to set up a karaoke house in our building,” Tan said.

They continued to face more issues with the building, they needed to find a cheap contractor in Pittsburgh who could rebuild the interior of the rundown building.
“Despite most of us being computer science majors, we designed the building plan and submitted it to our contractor. We did everything, from the soundproof walls to the interior decorating. We raised a total of 20K, which came from our pockets to redesign the interior,” Tan said.

In regards to future plans, Tan said, “We plan on expanding KBox to take on partnerships with local Asian restaurants in Squirrel Hill, as well as extending sponsorship outside of CMU. We also want to attract a larger population of students from other schools like Pitt and Duquesne; that way, there will be a wider web of connections.”

When asked whether KBox seems like a good social hub for students, first-year decision science major Steven Wang, a Chinese-American student, said, “Yeah, I think KBox is a good place to reconnect with your cultural roots if you’re Chinese since you can meet up with other Chinese friends, but at the same time I would go to KBox just to sing even if I wasn’t Chinese.”

When asked if KBox added to diversifying Chinese community life on campus, first-year computer science and math double major Jichao Sun said, “It seems unique. It’s not your average Chinese student association club.”

KBox hopes to continue expanding their business in order to attract people who want to sing American, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese music.

“We now wish to popularize KBox to all students and not just Asian students,” Tan said.