For some reason I’ve always associated 1970s songs with Hong Kong, especially Kowloon. Maybe it’s because my mom’s family spent a lot of time there during that decade or because when I walked around Kowloon in the 1990s, it evoked a bygone era.
So I was extremely excited to read Andrew Guthrie’s new book, Paul’s Records: How a refugee from the Vietnam War found success selling vinyl on the streets of Kowloon (Blacksmith Books, 2015).
The book is a compact yet rich narrative of a fascinating part of Hong Kong’s history. Paul Au was a teenager in Saigon during the height of the Vietnam War. His family was Cantonese and he didn’t speak much Vietnamese. In 1975, just shy of his 18th birthday–when he would need to register for the South Vietnamese Army–his family had him smuggled to Hong Kong.
His journey was grueling and dangerous. But once the boat–packed beyond capacity with refugees–arrived in Hong Kong, things went relatively smoothly. So many folks in Hong Kong were in on the smuggling operation. Paul didn’t have papers, but it didn’t matter. All the refugees needed was lots of money and a contact number of someone in Hong Kong they could call the next day. Paul’s family saved all their cash and borrowed more from relatives.
Paul worked for a year at odd jobs, but soon started selling vinyl records in the outdoor markets of Sham Shui Po, one of the poorest yet most colorful parts of Hong Kong. It was where used goods were resold to the public, items that well-to-do Hong Kong residents wouldn’t touch.
This book is fascinating for many reasons. The profiles of the singers of the time add to Paul’s story and the color photos bring the reader back to that time. The most interesting part of the book for me was reading about Paul’s successes as a record seller and archivist. He became the go-to person in Hong Kong for any album, whether in Mandarin, Cantonese, or English.
Paul Au was a true connoisseur of the 70s, dressing in bell bottoms, sporting long hair and a beard, and completely embracing the music of the times. He was also a free thinker and lived modestly. This book is an important part of Hong Kong’s history and one that will appeal to music lovers and Hong Kong aficionados.