Owning a turntable was a rare thing when Wong Chi-chung was a child. Hong Kong was booming, but many families were still emerging from poverty, so it was a special occasion when Wong’s older brother brought home a record player in 1975. “He was very paranoid about the records and would not let me touch them,” he recalls. “He would tell me to just listen.”
So he did. First was Queen’s A Night at the Opera. “‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was an important song to me,” says Wong. “I’d sing ‘mama mia mama mia’ all the time at home. That was the first record that our family owned.”
Wong wanted a turntable of his own and he eventually pestered his mother enough that she gave in and bought one for him. “Life was not easy back then because we were not a rich family, so I felt really touched when I got to own my first turntable. It was an entirely different world compared to listening to the radio or cassettes. Sometime later I saved up five dollars, which was very hard because I only got to have a few cents everyday, and I bought a seven-inch single. It was Barbara Streisand’s ‘Memory’.”
That was just the beginning of a career in music. Wong began working for Commercial Radio soon after graduating from university, in 1985, and he is still there, hosting the programme “Chi Chung’s Choice” every Saturday evening on CR2 90.3 FM. Over the years, he watched CDs replace vinyl records, and then the rise of digital music. Commercial Radio dispensed of its vinyl collection, though not before Wong grabbed some for himself.
Whenever he travelled, he made sure to check out local record shops where he would buy anything that piqued his interest: Davie Bowie’s Seven Years in Tibet, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s async. He liked the lossless sound quality, but also the feeling of holding something weighty and tangible, a 180 gram package emblazoned with unique artwork and extensive liner notes. For him, putting on a vinyl record was a way to “enjoy the music in a slower fashion, to really taste its flavours.”
These days, Wong is not alone. The past decade has seen a global resurgence in vinyl records, to the point where even new music is being released on vinyl, just as it was 50 years ago. And while Hong Kong’s high rents and small spaces make it difficult to run a business, a devoted community of vinyl enthusiasts are making a go of it.
“Why do I like vinyl records even when there are numerous other forms of music available? Because it’s a lifestyle,” says Paul Au, owner of Vinyl Hero, a legendary vinyl emporium in Sham Shui Po. “The sound of vinyl records is authentic and very primitive. It captures the vibration of sound waves and stores them within the grooves [of the record]. All those other formats, those streaming platforms – they are not real, not even the digitised ones.”
There are only a handful of vinyl specialists across Hong Kong, from Lamma Vinyl in Yue Shue Wan, to Walls of Sound in Central, to Yan Yan LP, tucked deep inside an industrial building in Kwai Chung. Each has its own particularities, its own quirky selection. In 2004, a young DJ named Gary Ieong decided to open White Noise Records with two of his friends because they couldn’t find the music they liked in Hong Kong.
“All of us like different kinds of stuff,” he says. “I like electronica. My other partner likes improvisation and noise stuff. Another one likes almost everything. Most of the music we focused on was really underground, and maybe our selection was too crazy. But people noticed we were selling unusual things and began talking about us on music forums.”
Analog Dept. Records opened for a similar reason. “Once you start talking about more alternative music, there aren’t many places to find records in Hong Kong,” says Analog Dept.’s Jan, who opened the business with two of his friends. He started out by selling records online before opening a physical location in a Kwun Tong industrial block.
That was similar to how Paul Au started out – except in those pre-internet days, Au sold second-hand records on the street, not online. He was born in Saigon, where he grew up in Cholon, a Chinese enclave on the west bank of the Saigon River “The teenagers around me were all Chinese,” he recalls. “They had these turntables and they would play the Beatles and Elvis. When I was 10, in 1967, they had a turntable and some records. I thought it was fascinating. Sounds were produced while the record was spinning. That was how I got to learn about vinyl.”
Au’s father bought a turntable in 1972. “But we didn’t have any records even after we got the turntable. We were very poor,” he says. They mainly bought knockoffs produced in Taiwan or borrowed records from friends and transferred them to cassette tapes. It was still enough to spark a lifelong fascination with music.
One of the earliest records that Au remembers is Cosmos Factory by Southern American rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival. “CCR was one of those hippie bands,” he says. It matched the lifestyle he and his friends were trying to build in Cholon. “We’d wander around the streets and buy hip clothes to wear – bootcut pants, long hair, listening to this music, buying drums and guitars to play. You’d encompass every aspect if you like the rock culture of this music.”
Just a couple of years later, Au fled Vietnam to avoid being drafted into the South Vietnamese army, which was fighting a losing war against Communist-ruled North Vietnam. He was smuggled into Hong Kong where he found work at hotels, restaurants and supermarkets, which gave him enough cash to go to the movies, buy bootcut pants and—of course—splurge on records. “I was still very hip,” he says. In 1983, Au moved from North Point to Sham Shui Po, where he discovered the second-hand market around Apliu Street.
“In the 80s, people abandoned everything from the 60s and 70s – things that I hold dear to my heart,” he says. That included old records. Au began collecting them and reselling them on the street. “Surprisingly there were actually some people—people who like to play in bands—who bought these records from me. I started doing this business by accident. After a while, I got some savings so I opened a store and rented a warehouse to store my records. That’s how it began.”
More than three decades later, Au is still in the business of selling used records. His upstairs shop, Vinyl Hero, is packed with thousands of records piled high in cardboard boxes. His unwavering commitment to music has earned him renown. Just about every vinyl enthusiast in Hong Kong has paid him a visit – and one, the writer Andrew S. Guthrie, went so far as to publish a book about Au, Paul’s Records, in 2016. Naturally, it takes the shape of a 12-inch record sleeve.
That’s the thing about record shops: more than just businesses, they are places where people can gather. “Conversation is very important,” says Gary Ieong. “If you compare to [what is available] online, we only have a very limited selection. But through conversations we can learn from people what they are really looking for. We can recommend something they had no idea about. People also recommend things to us. We keep learning every day.”
White Noise started out in a series of tiny spaces in Causeway Bay before moving to a larger upstairs venue in Prince Edward, where Ieong was able to host events and even small concerts. Now the shop has moved to its fourth location, in a ground-floor space on buzzy Tai Nan Street, where a new crop of cafés and art galleries has emerged. “After the big movement last year a lot of Hong Kong citizens are not willing to go to the big shopping malls – they prefer to go to some hidden places or really local traditional areas to find something new,” says Ieong. “So after we opened in March we were happy to see a lot of people stopping by. We met a lot of new faces, which we never expected.”
They have a lot of music to explore. Behind every record shop is a passionate collector who is the gatekeeper to a trove of unique treasures. Au still has a copy of Cosmos Factory on hand, but he also likes Groovin’, a 1967 album by the Young Rascals. And while he isn’t a huge fan of Cantopop, he likes a local 1980s rock band called Chyna that sang in English, a legacy of the English-language pop that dominated Hong Kong in the 1960s. Jan from Analog Dept. is a fan of the Akira soundtrack and he is particularly excited about a soundtrack for the Wong Kar-wai film Days of Being Wild, which was produced on seven-inch vinyl exclusively for the shop. “We asked a local illustrator to help us recreate a scene from the film for the record sleeve,” he says.
Wong Chi-chung’s favourite album is even more personal: a seven-inch single—made of translucent vinyl—for the Mandarin version of “Seven Years in Tibet” (Chà nà tiān dì, 刹那天地), which Wong produced in collaboration with David Bowie.
He still spins vinyl on his CR2 show. And while for a time he seemed like a lone voice in the wilderness, today he is happy to be part of a resurgence. “My daughter – I gave her a turntable on her eighth birthday,” he says. “Yeah, to pass on this culture, starting from my own family. I look forward to the future.”
A selection of Hong Kong vinyl shops
Analog Dept. Records
2/F, Ming Sang Industrial Building, No.19 Hing Yip Street, Kwun Tong, Kowloon
1/F, 45 Main Street Yung Shue Wan, Lamma Island
B96, TST Plaza, 45-51 Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong
Flat D, 5/F, Wai Hong Building, 239 Cheung Sha Wan Road, Sham Shui Po, Kowloon. Tel: +852 9841 7136. Call ahead before visiting
Walls of Sound
3/F, 38 Cochrane Street, Central. Tel: +852 2805 1584
White Noise Records
199 Tai Nan Street, Sham Shui Po, Kowloon
Yan Yan LP
Flat G, 15/F, Block 1, Goldfield Industrial Building, 144-150 Tai Lin Pai Road, Kwai Fong, Hong Kong
Shop 325, 3/F, President Commercial Centre, 608 Nathan Road, Mong Kok, Kowloon