It was inevitable, in a monthly PopMatters column called Vinyl Archeology, that the author would reference his own book: Paul’s Records: How a Refugee from the Vietnam War Found Success Selling Vinyl on the Streets of Hong Kong (Blacksmith Books). This obviously contains an element of self-promotion, but if it’s archeology that concerns vinyl, and the metaphorical dig sorts through layer upon layer of degraded artifact, as opposed to an orderly, compartmentalized archive, then Paul’s Records is the place.
Paul is legendary in Hong Kong, and while my book might be definitive, it is one of many radio and TV programs, student films and journalistic articles that concern his shop and his life (which I won’t go into detail here, but is certainly implied in the title). Suffice to say, the shop is in an ordinary apartment building in Sham Shui Po (a section of Kowloon, Hong Kong) but instead of being used as a domicile, it is packed with box upon box of vinyl records.
There is no labelling of type or style in the shop, but Paul knows where everything is. He crawls across the piles, moving this or that, in order to reveal what you, the customer, are looking for. This lack of space means that one is obliged to interact with Paul. That’s how we became friends and how the book came about.
On one particular visit, Paul got me going on a genre I had heard about but really wasn’t familiar with, “Shanghai Style”, a musical genre that originated in that city almost as soon as recording technologies were introduced. From the 1920s up until communist control of mainland China in the ’50s, the city produced a slew of singers who went on to influence the entire Asian region.
The named genre, broad in terms of its actual sound (for the most part sung by female vocalists), is sometimes referred to as “jazz”. It was developed in tandem with the introduction of that modernist trend, but a more accurate term in Chinese might be Shi Dai Qu (時代新歌), tellingly translated as “songs of the times” or less literally, “modern music”.
That term was not in common usage in Shanghai during those years and the stated genre on any particular recording might in fact refer to jazz. Jazz was in the air, was of the times, to such an extent that in 1934, trumpet player par excellence, Buck Clayton, future member of Count Basie’s orchestra and collaborator with the iconic saxophonist Lester Young, was hired to lead one of Shanghai’s many house bands.
It was jazz’s cultural capital that was impossible to avoid, but truthfully, some of the more pertinent western influences on the “Shanghai Style” divas were mainstream American vocalists like Deanna Durbin and Jeanette MacDonald, which points to the pervasive influence of film, a medium that was far more accessible than the potentially exclusive nightclub.
Even with the overseas influence that came with the city’s significant European population, as soon as Shanghai’s recording industry took off, a local market blossomed. To satisfy this homegrown audience, Chinese composers began to incorporate indigenous instrumentation and well-known folk melodies into a regional style that we might otherwise refer to as “pop music”.
Today these records, most especially the original 78rpms, are practically a luxury item, going anywhere from US$80 to $300. A 33 1/3 recording of Malaysian born Chinese singer, Poon Sow Keng, was recently sighted in another Hong Kong used record shop going for US$250. This market, the “Shanghai Style” singers, along with any other Chinese language pop music, makes up a large percentage of Paul’s income.
What are easily available, and affordable, are CD reissues of the “Seven Great Singing Stars” of the classic Shanghai era, compilations of songs by Bai Guang, Bai Hong, Gong Qiuxia, Li Xianglan, Yao Lee, Wu Yingyin, and Zhou Xuan. There was also the inevitable remix CD, Shanghai Lounge Divas (released in 2005) that put a post-hip-hop or dance music gloss on some of the original songs. But there are other options; options that add an idiosyncratic layer to the metaphorical dig, that unearth a unique yet neglected artifact.
Paul, sensitive to certain of my consumerist inclinations, put together a collection of “Shanghai Style” singers that had been released on ten inch Taiwanese bootleg vinyl records, LPs that until recently were considered worthless, having flooded the primary and then secondary market. One frequently comes across them in skewed and moldy stacks, suggesting the negligibility of a knockoff. Paul, having come of age with the bootlegged product, confessed to me how he and his friends disparaged this step down from the original and how it situated the consumer within a certain economic class.
But Taiwan has a long and curious history of by-passing the entrenched legal strictures common to the European and American markets. In the ’60s and ’70s, the country pirated countless copies of twelve-inch LPs of western rock, pop, soul (you name it), sometimes in a picture sleeve that unintentionally brings to mind an Andy Warhol silkscreen with its arty mis-registrations.
The ten-inch Taiwanese bootlegs of Shi Dai Qu lower the bar even further by packaging them in all-purpose sleeves that simply post the issuing company’s name and logo. The sleeve itself is actually a plastic bag into which one piece of thin folded cardboard is inserted, thereby eliminating the need for binding the cardboard or providing an inner envelope. To top off the novel quality of these throw-away artifacts, the vinyl record is sometimes issued in a stunning shade of orange or red.
Ironically, for the US born collector, these items are exotic, demonstrating a method of production and distribution unknown in the west unless we consider the concept of “illegal download”. Combined with the plethora of Taiwanese “labels” and their attendant packaging, which in some cases mimics an established western brand (with names like “Hollywood” and “Universal”) one is left with, despite its disposability, a product worthy of display.
But in the end, after the unintended collectability of the previously discarded, we must access the actual purpose of a ten inch Taiwanese bootleg record: to reveal what a “Shanghai Style” singer sounds like. Zhou Xuan is a stage name. Zhou Xuan was a singer and film actress who worked in Shanghai and Hong Kong. She was one of the original outstanding three, an elite that eventually became seven, a set pantheon that encompasses that era. A hazy biography from that long gone era asserts that she was an orphan, a child sold off by an opium-addicted relative, raised as a Wang, in training as a courtesan, and then adopted as a Zhou. Eventually the title Xuan was assumed – meaning “jade” in Chinese. Beautiful jade. She made over 40 movies and recorded over 200 songs, her most famous film being “Street Angel”, a title that indicates the zeitgeist of the Chinese city of that era – the streets and those who can remain angelic.
Just as Shanghai, in the ’20s and ’30s, was rife with all the degradation and opulence that makes for the modern metropolis, Zhuo Xuan embodies the foibles of contemporary stardom. Highly successful, she was nevertheless prey to bouts of personal instability – unsuccessful love affairs, illegitimate children, suicide attempts. The chosen song will be Hua Yang De Nian Hua (花样的年华), a title borrowed for the Wong Kar Wai film, known in English as “In the Mood for Love”. The Chinese phrase means “the flowery years”, but is also a metaphor for the fleeting circumstances of youth, beauty and love.
It doesn’t matter if the language is foreign, unfamiliar to you, it is the distinctive sound, the tenor of the voice, its emotive power, that is speaking to you (that you are responding to). It is the very foreignness of the dialect that adds to this distinction, that moves the song (the singer) beyond her western influences and makes the style her own. In some ways, she just has to open her mouth, or plays the European instrument under the weight of her particular experience, and it naturally comes out as something different, a sincere expression of a particular time and a specific place.
This article was adapted from certain parts of: Paul’s Records: How a Refugee from the Vietnam War Found Success Selling Vinyl on the Streets of Hong Kong by Andrew S. Guthrie, Blacksmith Books 2015
In the next instalment of Vinyl Archeology: The Betty Davis cult of updated blues and raw funk.