Why Hong Kongers still buy vinyl

Why Hong Kongers still buy vinyl by Still/Loud. The author's vinyl collection. Vivian Yeung, Still / Loud
The author's vinyl collection. Vivian Yeung, Still / Loud
Collecting vinyl is an act of rebellion, fans say.

A young man with long hair walks out of Zoo Records in Mong Kok, carrying two colourful 12” records under his arm, sans plastic bag. “It’s more environmentally friendly this way,” he laughs. “Plus, people can see what I listen to.”

Vinyl collecting is a niche hobby in Hong Kong, sometimes unfairly associated with a “middle-class” lifestyle. Raphael Hui, the former Chief Secretary for Administration convicted of misconduct in public office in 2014, reportedly once spent HKD$200,000 at a record store in a single day – but it isn’t only wealthy music connoisseurs who buy into the analogue experience.

Record stores like Zoo, White Noise and Sham Shui Po’s Paul have maintained a loyal following over the years. One invite-only Facebook group for second-hand CD/vinyl trading has over 5,000 members and is home to many transactions every day. Record fairs see a small but dedicated group of music aficionados digging through dozens of crates nearly every month. Indie artists are even putting out LPs on vinyl again.

Surprisingly, however, a good number of collectors aren’t audiophiles. To them, collecting vinyl is an act of rebellion against an increasingly fast-paced world, where streaming and pirating services render it uncannily easy to gain access to music.

Selections from Hood Lam’s record collection. via Hood Lam

Hood Lam is a musician and second-hand vinyl trader, often spotted on weeknights trading records with regulars in MTR stations. “A lot of the interest comes from those who grew up purchasing physical media and are now in their 30s to 40s,” he tells me. “Playing records is a ritual. Not only do you have to sit still, but you have to do things like rinse, clean and wipe the record – before finally lowering the needle.”

Vinyl sounds warmer and less harsh than CDs or digital, he adds.

Similarly, Milton Wong, former admin of the popular second-hand records group, puts less of an emphasis on expensive sound systems and more on the look and feel of vinyl, as well as the ability to hold his music in his hands.

Tastes are also evolving. Milton says he has witnessed a shift from people requesting regular Smashing Pumpkins CDs, to asking for 12” first presses of The Smiths. Meanwhile, Nick Chan, a collector since the late 2000s, owns a limited edition of Massive Attack’s Splitting the Atom that only has 1,000 copies printed worldwide. It costs HKD$2,000 off online marketplace Discogs — his most expensive yet. Yet enthusiasts won’t just buy any record that’s released. Many, like Nick, are critical of poor-quality reissues of classic albums that cash in on collective nostalgia without delivering on anything near the sound quality of original presses.

Nick Chan’s setup at home, featuring releases from Massive Attack. via Nick Chan

Still a movement largely dominated by music giants, the vinyl revival has not benefitted indie labels around the world. The scene in Hong Kong faces the extra difficulty of having very few vinyl manufacturing plants available; Hong Kong has just one, while China has three. Local bands who decided to go vinyl have had their records pressed in countries such as England or Germany.

It certainly doesn’t help that Hong Kongers buy more foreign than local records. Effects of the vinyl revival haven’t been quite noticeable for local musicians like Hood, whose band Teenage Riot released their debut LP The Revenge on digital, CD and vinyl in 2015. The expenses associated with merely being in a band and recording an album are already immense before you even get to the cost of pressing the album on vinyl. And despite the rise in record sales, most people still stream the bulk of their music on Spotify or YouTube.

Expensive rent, cramped homes and a general lack of space means that the continued popularity of vinyl may well depend on whether people find enough room to keep their growing collections. When new purchases no longer fit on those Ikea 4×4 shelves, records end up being crammed into crates, haphazardly piled up on the floor, or even put in storage. That’s why Facebook groups and used stores at Sino Centre see familiar faces, again and again, selling off their collection to make way for more.

Still, these Hong Kongers take pride in their music. And maybe that’s what it all boils down to – the delight of seeing album art on the 12” sleeve, watching the stylus run through the grooves of a record, and paying full attention to the music spinning in front of you for the next half hour.