Reviews / June 2016 (Issue 32)

The Flipside of the City: Andrew S. Guthrie's Paul's Records

by Reto Winckler


Andrew S. Guthrie, Paul's Records: How a Refugee from the Vietnam War Found Success Selling Vinyl on the Streets of Hong Kong, Blacksmith Books, 2015. 140 pgs.


I have to admit that I find Hong Kong somewhat difficult to understand. I've lived in various places in mainland China for eight years, and at least imagine that I have some understanding of what is going on there. By contrast, Hong Kong baffles me to this day, even though I've spent the last three years of my life in and around it. I just can't put my finger on it. To pick a random example: Hong Kong is clearly Chinese, and yet it also isn't. It is, geographically and politically, surrounded by the People's Republic, but when I'm in Hong Kong, and especially when talking to Hongkongers, it usually feels more like a part of "the West" than of China. Everyone seems to have travelled to San Francisco, or Vancouver, or Paris, or at least Singapore, but it's difficult to find anyone who has been to Beijing.

Therefore, I am glad whenever I can find a book to lighten the burden of my Hong Kong ignorance, and Andrew Guthrie's tiny book about Sham Shui Po's vinyl fanatic Paul Au Tak Shing and his record store Paul's Records does a splendid job in this regard. It combines local and regional history, rock biography, pop archaeology, 70s nostalgia and vinyl fan talk to give a vivid and surprisingly profound picture of Hong Kong's development over the last forty years.

On its most basic level, the book is a journalistic account which relates how the American author found Paul's Records after having moved to Hong Kong. Detailed descriptions of the shop's cramped interior, clogged with thousands of vinyl records of every imaginable genre and origin, are supplemented with photos of the store itself, as well as the surrounding neighbourhood of Sham Shui Po. The book also gives Paul Au Tak Shing room to tell his own adventurous life story in the first person. Born in Saigon to Chinese parents, Paul came of age when Saigon was occupied by American forces and saturated with the American cultural products they brought with them, most importantly rock music. Having soaked it all up, Paul fled to Hong Kong when he was about to turn eighteen to escape the draft, and spent years as a drifter, doing odd jobs and living in rooftop squats until he slowly, over the course of many years, established himself as a record dealer.

On another level, the book is about the appreciation of vinyl, a seemingly outdated technology that lingers on but is now appreciated only by a chosen few. In his loving treatment of Paul's obsession, which is also his own, Guthrie provides a glimpse into a world that has disappeared from mainstream culture and has no place in the glitzy shopping malls that dominate contemporary Hong Kong, but still exists in apartments turned into record shops and storage facilities tucked away in unfashionable districts. In relating how Guthrie and Paul became friends through their common fascination with these black plastic discs, the book is also a testament to the comforting fact that true love knows no borders. Paul started out as a fan of American 70s hard-rock but is today widely recognised as the city's leading expert on locally produced music. Guthrie writes that he doesn't know Chinese and had no previous exposure to Asian music, but Paul's Records bears witness to his eagerness to truly immerse himself in the local culture.

Finally, and in my opinion most importantly, Guthrie's book succeeds in offering, at least to this rather incompletely informed reviewer, a meaningful description of Hong Kong history, attitudes and politics from the time of Paul's arrival to the present day. Even more remarkable is that it does so without really trying. Thus, the story of Paul's flight to Hong Kong, for example, provides a memorable picture of the city's place in Southeast Asia and of the complicated and widespread kinship networks which connect the different Chinese communities in Southern China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the wider world. Paul relates how his grandparents emigrated to the Chinatown of Saigon at the beginning of the 20th century, how he was taken to Hong Kong by a Taiwanese ship, how he found refuge with an uncle who lived in Hong Kong and how his parents finally succeeded in moving from Vietnam to Canada in 1983 because they had relatives there. Similarly, in its detailed accounts of Hong Kong's music industry, in which it was common practice for artists to take existing melodies or songs and re-record them with Cantonese lyrics, and in its descriptions of the bootleg culture that has been ubiquitous in Hong Kong since the 1960s, the book shines a light on local attitudes towards creativity and art.

Paul's Records also gives an account of what it was (and, in many ways still is) like to be poor in Hong Kong and of Hong Kong's mainstream culture as it is reflected in its uncomfortable interactions with the outsider Paul. As to being poor, Paul puts it bluntly: "I tell you, in Hong Kong it is heaven for rich people and hell for the poor people. I was living in hell." In addition to personal descriptions of the rat-infested squats and street corners he slept in for almost twenty years after his arrival in Hong Kong, Paul's contention is memorably substantiated in his comments on the various "sample records" from his store, which are distributed throughout the book and illustrated with cover art and artist photos. Again, these accounts work on several levels: they shine a light on Paul's musical knowledge and passion, give the reader a cross-section of Paul's collection and provide a history of the Hong Kong and wider Asian music scene of the 1960s and 70s. They also offer moving insights into the fickle fortunes of many singers and stars who made it big but then ended up fading back into obscurity or even living on the streets.

Ultimately, it is this ability to suggest a bigger picture while focusing on a very specific phenomenon that is the main merit of Paul's Records. Where more general histories frequently end up relating meaningless generalities which are forgotten as soon as read, the story of Paul and his store leave an imprint on the mind, much like the pressing on a piece of vinyl. I can therefore recommend this tiny, pretty book to anyone who wants to understand Hong Kong a little better. And if you are a vinyl nerd, you'll love it anyway.    

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