Siu King-chin - in tune with success

Violinist Siu King-chin gave up playing after an accident but keeps his passion alive by running the popular chain of Hong Kong Records shops

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 October, 2012, 10:54am

Visit a Hong Kong Records shop and there's a chance you'll encounter an amiable grey-haired man holding forth on what's hot and what's not in the music scene. That man is Siu King-chin, the founding owner of perhaps the city's biggest retailer of music and movies, doing what he loves most.

Siu, a violinist, started Hong Kong Records 30 years ago as a 200 square foot shop after suffering neck injuries that forced him to abandon his music career. In that time, his business has come a long way, operating out of three sprawling shops that have become the favourite haunts of music lovers and tourists.

Competition from global giants, piracy and technologyinduced changes in music use have hardly scratched the company's record, a firm that continues to top the charts in the city's music industry.

Sitting in his cosy Wan Chai office, Siu says music is integral to his life. "I have 4,000 music CDs at home and I listen to music every day. It's part of my life," he said.

A look around confirms the man's passion for music - the walls are adorned with pictures of him with some of the biggest names in the music world.

But even he admits that the golden era of CD music sales is long gone as many people head for the internet to get their fix.

This is in sharp contrast to the 1980s, when an album by a popular singer could easily sell half a million copies. "Now if one sells 20,000 copies, it's reason enough to pour the champagne," he said.

But that hasn't dented his outlook for the industry or for his business. "Shopping is an entertainment in Hong Kong. Some may want to listen to music for free but there are some who still like to buy music at shops. Just as people still buy newspapers, even though there are free daily papers."

Born in Guangzhou in 1948, Siu learned the violin after finishing primary school. He came to Hong Kong as a teenager and continued his violin training in the city and in the United States, becoming a professional violinist in the 1970s.

But a car accident in the early 1980s changed his life. He injured his neck and could not keep up with violin recitals.

"I had to find a new career. As I love music and found that music shops were doing rather well, I decided to open one myself."

Siu opened Do Re Me in Admiralty in the mid-1980s, with a handful of staff. This was long before the internet and before international chains like HMV had entered the city.

"In the beginning, I didn't have many staff so I would do everything from mopping the floors to arranging stock as well as attending to customers," Siu said.

In 1989, he decided to expand, and moved to the newly opened Pacific Place, where he took advantage of the bigger space to stock a wider range of music and try a new display method. The new shop, rebranded as Hong Kong Records and covering 3,000 sq ft, allowed customers to browse through anything from the classics to pop.

"I used a customer's perspective to run a shop, so I arranged the CDs in a way that would make them easy to find. I arranged for buyers to listen to the music before buying them. In addition, our staff also helped customers order the CDs they wanted but could not find in the shop," Siu said.

He also made the staff wear uniforms and encouraged them to learn about the products they were selling.

"If someone wants to buy Moonlight Sonata, my staff will present them with all the different versions by different pianists," he said.

"They will also explain the differences between the versions to the customer. The customer may not buy all the versions but will leave the shop knowing he made an informed decision and was satisfied by the service provided."

The strong music sales in the 1980s and 1990s boosted his business and he opened two more shops in Harbour City and Festival Walk. The success of Hong Kong Records, meanwhile, began to catch the attention of foreign players and HMV decided to enter the market.

The bigger challenge, however, was the coming change in technology. The internet as well as devices like the iPod and smartphones would soon substantially alter the way music was consumed.

While many simply use the internet these days to listen to music, those who are willing to pay increasingly prefer digital platforms like iTunes.

In keeping with the times, Siu's shops now not only sell CDs but also stock films and electronic games. Still, he said, music CDs made up 60 per cent of sales.

Over the past three decades, apart from technological changes and economic cycles, his shops have seen a shift in the demography of clients. Where Westerners were the major buyers before the handover, mainland customers are now most likely to splash out on high-quality CDs and Blu-ray discs.

There was also a windfall from the 2003 Sars outbreak. As other businesses struggled to stay afloat, his shops did brisk business as people stocked up on home entertainment because they were forced to stay indoors.

The government's decision to give HK$6,000 to all permanent residents last year also boosted sales as people spent the windfall on entertainment.

Siu, now 64, has no plans to retire although his son and daughter have begun to help him run the business.

"I'm still fit and healthy, and there's no reason for me to stop working. I like to serve my customers and share my views on music and films with them," he said.