It’s easy to miss the entrance of 720 Shanghai Street, a tonglau building that places itself discreetly against furniture shops and old-style pawnbroker signboards. Behind me, a large group of tourists alights from a travel bus, sending bursts of laughter that bounces off the stairs leading up to White Noise Records. The store, in contrast, is still and serene, an oasis from the busy chaos of Prince Edward.
The 40-year-old store owner, Gary Leong, is in sneakers and a black cap; his eyebrows are pale, giving him an expression that alternates between earnestness and skepticism. The store isn’t just a physical manifestation of Gary’s music taste; it’s a reflection of his eclectic character. Behind the cash register is an anti-nuke poster bearing an outline of Japan. At the back of the store is an old sofa, worn by claw marks courtesy of the shop’s two resident felines. A joke sign hanging on the wall announces: “White Noise Sucks!”
Since White Noise opened 12 years ago, it has been a favourite among the local underground crowd in Hong Kong. Just like San Francisco has Aquarius Records and Japan has Big Love, Hong Kong has White Noise. But no matter where you are, running a record store in 2017 is no easy feat. Add to that a city that undervalues independent artists and rising rents that snuff out small businesses daily, and the only thing left to explain White Noise’s improbable, decade-long run might just be Gary’s stubborn conviction.
The store began as an experiment that apparently flew in the face of common sense. “When we first started, we were even crazier — we were selling ‘noise’ records, or CDs that only had 50 copies issued worldwide. It was quite extreme. The truth is just that no one will buy those records, even if we really loved them – it just doesn’t work. Now we’re seeking a balance.”
As if on cue, the door swings open, and in walks The Yours/Ex-Punishment’s frontman Leung Pak Ting, who makes a beeline for second hand vinyls and drone noise records. Yet there’s more: lining the shelves are myriads of post-rock, emo, neo-classical, shoegaze, indie rock albums and vinyl records. Iceland gets its own category. Japanese gets multiple: Japanese rock, Japanese indie, Japanese underground.
Even so, Gary claims his shop is “already very mainstream”: “We have Daft Punk, Radiohead, Nick Drake — we didn’t have those in the past,” he admits. “But at least no one’s ever asked us for Lady Gaga! Although we’ve had a couple of requests for Teresa Teng, Priscilla Chan.”
Gary’s taste developed early. As a kid, he devoured his father’s record collection — the elder Leong loved both mainstream and alternative, from Lam Chi Cheung and Leslie Cheung to David Bowie and Pink Floyd. Once Gary graduated from form five at age 18, he knew where he wanted to work: at a record shop.
His wish was granted. Gary’s first job was at a tiny record shop in a Shatin mall. It couldn’t have been better timing. The record business was blooming: it was the golden age of Cantopop. His first task was wrapping 300 copies of Jacky Cheung Polygram CDs. Later, he remembers how record companies rushed to reissue Wong Ka Kui’s back catalogue when the Beyond frontman passed away. The scene’s historical moments, ups and downs — became part of Gary’s story too.
As the industry grew up, so did his aspirations. He dreamed of starting his own store. Then his boss turned him down for a raise. This was a turning point, he recalls: he decided he would answer to no one but himself. He recruited two other partners, and White Noise Records was born.
The store is now in its third generation, having moved to escape cramped locations in Causeway Bay, where rents were rising quickly. For Gary, the move to Kowloon wasn’t just about business but about principles: he wanted more space to display things close to his heart. There’s less customer flow here, but Gary isn’t worried. “People who listen to alternative music, they would be willing to go further, look for things in different places.”
The spirit of being anti-establishment, even in the face of commercial constraints, is one Gary has stuck to, for better or for worse. For that, he’s gained an uncommon level of respect. White Noise has been dubbed “the big brother of all alternative Hong Kong music stores”. It often acts as a ticket outlet for indie shows in Hong Kong, including those hosted at Hidden Agenda. So when musicians speak of Gary, they do it with unmasked veneration — for giving his support to local artists, for bringing cool acts to the city, and just for toughing it out as long as he has.
But this quality may be becoming increasingly rare. Some bands, Gary charges, call themselves indie just as a “slogan”. There are those, he says, that launch impassioned attacks towards platforms like Clockenflap, only to undergo a sudden change of heart when the opportunity presents itself to appear on one.
“They have no principles at all,” he grouses. “I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong, that you shouldn’t play at [mainstream radio station] 903. But as an indie band, you need to know what you’re doing.”
Gary laments the indie scene is held back by what he sees as a lack of mutual support. “I’m not even asking for the level of support in Taiwan, where even a rapper would show support for a music genre completely different to theirs.” But, he says, Hong Kong’s scene is often characterised by infighting and criticism that’s less than constructive.
“Sometimes bands are labelled as indie, but maybe that’s not how they see themselves. They just want to make it big, and they’re criticising others in the scene just because they’re not there yet.”
Gary’s own future is uncertain. He confesses he’s wanted to close the shop multiple times, but has too huge a stockpile of albums for him to do anything else with them. Meanwhile, the internet cuts into his business every year. Some people come to the store to hunt for new music, ask Gary about the artist, then add the song on Spotify right in front of him, or take a picture of the record and leave, he says.
“We are a business, we need to pay rent, but people don’t care about your feelings. They come here, play with the cat, post a photo with a hashtag on Instagram, and that’s it… At this age, no one wants to pay for music. Even when we were doing a show with [Japanese instrumental rock band] toe, there were people who just snuck in to watch backstage.”
New York’s Other Music, which had long been Gary’s “role model” store, closed last year, he sighs. So he finds hope each day when customers buy albums he thought no one would notice. “The fact that people still buy CDs — that’s already quite touching to me!”
If nothing else, perhaps there is still the reminder that he named White Noise after a small, groundbreaking UK psychedelic rock band in the 60s, representing “the grittiest, roughest voice of the underground music scene.” Inspirational, avant-garde, obscure — that’s White Noise Records, for as long as Gary can make it last.
“It’s a niche market,” he admits. “It’s always a gamble.”