By Austin Shiner

BEIJING, China, 7:31 p.m. —

“Which do you think is the prettiest?”

I was shocked. “They’re all very attractive,” I said with an astonished smile.“

I knew you’d say that.”

Ten young women, all identically dressed in black miniskirts and plunging neckline tops, lined the front wall. I leaned towards Sam, “Are they serious?”

“They’re serious.”

Culture shock. I’d been warned about the gross public spitting and the absence of coffee (big downer); I even knew about Asia’s all-consuming obsession with karaoke. But the hot drinking buddies? Here’s awkward: a paid female “attendant” flirts with you in a language you don’t understand while your host, the fantastically wealthy CEO of an architecture firm, offers you cigarettes (I don’t smoke) and toasts you with Hennessey Cognac for three hours. And you have to sing karaoke. Welcome to KTV.

KTV clubs litter Beijing. They’re in hotels, clubs, and are often independent establishments. Private rooms dot a maze of long hallways – waiters, hostesses, and scantily clad women walk to and fro attending to Chinese businessmen and, in our case, two uncomfortable college kids. The girls aren’t prostitutes or strippers but rather sexually overt evening entertainment. They’re like Geishas without cultural training (and a lot less clothing). Ted Koppel’s documentary “The People’s Republic of Capitalism,” which aired on the Discovery Channel a month ago, documented the phenomenon. Country and city girls alike, many of whom hold “regular” jobs, work the night shift at KTVs all over China. Koppel’s interview with three of them was revealing (get it, haha): swelling paychecks trump moral opposition.

Sam’s family friends love KTV. These aren’t young people either: late thirties to early forties with wives and children. Every weekend and many weekdays find Tang Ge and his motley crew at one or another KTV joint. It’s a wild departure from what I know as responsible conduct. And these men aren’t vagabonds, aren’t the dregs of Beijing life — they are, in fact, very successful and “upright” men enjoying the spoils of China’s rapid industrialization. I can’t say what percentage of wealthy Chinese partake in KTV, but many large clubs require reservations weeks in advance.

Every time, when a new set of girls walks in for our evaluation, I can hardly look them in the eye. “I’m not judging you” is my intended message, but I fear that only makes them feel less valued. Despite the girls’ plentiful karaoke talent KTV nonetheless strikes a sour chord.