‘Come on, choose a song!’

Four pairs of eyes implore me to pick up the mic. We’re in a dingy room with a wrap-around sofa encircling a low set table which holds a bucket of ice filled with bottles of beer. Three walls need their decor updating; the fourth barely holds up a beastly screen, blinking at us for input.

‘All right, all right. Put the cat king on.’

The four faces turn into question marks.

‘Elvis Presley,’ I elaborate, switching to English. ‘The cat king!’ I repeat, switching back to Mandarin.

The four question marks continue to stare at me.

‘The coolest man ever! The American. The 1950s. Love Me Tender? Jailhouse Rock?’

My four companions continue to stare at me. I am being treated to my own medicine, I think. For the past month, we’ve been roving around bars, electric with youth, playing dice, eating vodka-drenched watermelon, telling tall tales over blaring hip-hop, playing pool in smoke-filled backrooms, grimacing over mahjong tables, cooling off in outdoor swimming pools. And now, we’ve piled into a karaoke booth giggling, and for the first time, I’m not the clueless one, asking what the hell is going on.

‘Let me show you.’

猫王 turns up two results. I opt for Blue Suede Shoes. The poses come out. The fun kicks in.

My new friends lean back, swigging on lager, and enjoy the show. Li Ziyi and Li Zier, sister and brother, share a knowing glance. They had spotted me at sea in Shenzhen a month ago, and taken an interest in the Chinese-speaking foreigner. Why had I come? What was I up to? How about we grab a bite? Since then, we’ve been hanging out every evening and weekend; joined by Jia Shangshan, the charmer from Shanghai with a permanent cigarette jutting from the corner of his mouth which wags as he enraptures his latest entourage with his next fat fib; and Chang Haobang, who paired with Li Ziyi, can belt out any soaring, raucous, Whitney Houston-esque Mandarin ballad. Chang Haobang has a fantastically cheeky grin too. A grin not there when I finish my last Elvis grunt. They’re all perplexed.

‘Ah yeah, you see, back then, in the West, cool people were called cats,’ I explain. ‘And Elvis was the coolest of them all, right? That’s why he’s called Cat King in Chinese!’ My eyes gleam. It is one of my favourite English to Chinese name translations.

My friends disagree. ‘How– just how can a cat be cool?’ asks Li Ziyi.

The notion seems ridiculous. I guess many notions of cool seem ridiculous. I’m still baffled as to how geil (horny in German) means cool. Lekker (meaning tasty in most Germanic languages, but also cool in Afrikaans and Dutch) makes more sense to me. But why then, do Danes and Swedes opt for fed/fett (fat) instead? And what do Norwegians say? What a mystery.

‘Cat got your tongue?’ riffs Li Zier.

I open my mouth to try and explain about Squeeze’s Cool for Cats, about the cool music video, about how the music video was filmed at John Lennon’s old house, and how Lennon was cool, and how the Beatles were cool. There’s the whole Beat generation: On the Road is chockful of crazy cats and madcats. I think of Top Cat, with his cool hat. Of course, there’s also Cool Cat, who’s called Cool Cat. And then there’s Pink Panther, the cat with the coolest theme tune of them all, on saxophone. That’s cool.

But then I remember Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, and close my mouth again, slinking away.