Music defines Gary Ieong's life and career

His musical leanings define indie record store boss, concert promoter and label owner Gary Ieong, writes Richard Lord

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 April, 2014, 12:40pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 April, 2014, 12:40pm

Gary Ieong certainly has perseverance. For 10 years, he has run White Noise Records, the leading independent record shop in a city largely impervious to the charms of such emporia. He is also, under the White Noise name, the promoter of many of Hong Kong's more challenging live gigs, and the owner of a record label that among other artists handles Japanese math rock favourites Toe.

All this because of his single-minded, dedicated love of ambitious, experimental, lovingly crafted music. And yet, he says, "Even now my parents still ask me when I'm going to get a proper job."

We had no money, no stock, and the music we were selling was mostly noise
gary ieong, on white noise records' shaky start

To mark a decade in the business, on Saturday Ieong is bringing to Kitec in Kowloon Bay the underground jazz-rock-fusion project Hotel New Tokyo and instrumental rock group A Picture of Her, both from Japan and both appearing outside the country for the first time.

White Noise is everything you'd expect from an independent record shop. Hidden on the first floor of a walk-up at the Prince Edward end of Kowloon's Shanghai Street, it is jammed with hard-to-find vinyl and CDs in every genre except the mainstream, from Japanese underground to post-rock and math rock to experimental noise to the more extreme versions of metal and techno. If it's offbeat, unusual and good, the shop will probably have it. It wasn't always that way. "When we opened we had no money, no stock, and the music we were selling was mostly noise. It was quite crazy, considering the audience in Hong Kong," Ieong recalls.

Ieong had grown up mainly listening to Canto-pop, but as a teenager he started getting into Japanese rock and from there more underground types of music. "I was still at school, and I said to myself: 'I really like music and I need to find a job related to it'."

Just after turning 18, he got his first job in the Sha Tin branch of a chain record store, knocking out hundreds of Jacky Cheung CDs a day, at a time when physical record stores were starting to become an endangered species; the shop closed about four years later.

"Music is a really hard business to make a living in," Ieong says, adding that becoming a musician wasn't an option as he had no particular talent in that direction. "I was a DJ, but I was really bad. I mainly played minimal techno, and people in Hong Kong were just not interested, so I'd always just be playing to myself."

His dream was to open a record shop, but there was a problem. "I had no money - I was really poor." Fortunately, he found two business partners who like him were motivated mainly by their desire to see an outlet open that catered to their non-mainstream tastes. "All of us like really weird music," says Ieong. "Often my partners and I will like a record, but no one else. In the beginning we just wanted to have a store selling what we really liked. That music couldn't be found in Hong Kong. We had to get a lot of it by mail order, often direct from the artists themselves."

White Noise opened in 2004, during the post-Sars period when rents were depressed enough to allow it to take premises in Causeway Bay, near the Canal Road flyover, and survive not selling much for the first couple of years.

The logical next move, he says, was to put on live shows. "Things were going smoothly, and we thought that if you're selling music, you should let people listen to the bands, so we started to do in-store music." The bands they showcased were mostly harsh-sounding, however. With the concerts being free, a lot of audience members walked in off the street. Introducing a modest ticket price, however, saw audience numbers fall from about 50 to less than 10.

"Most people didn't really like it," Ieong says ruefully.

He ploughed on, however, and soon started promoting gigs outside the store. The first, in 2005, was also the first time Ieong had brought in a band from overseas, in the form of British post-rockers Yndi Halda.

His most memorable show, for good reasons and bad, was the Hong Kong edition of the Notch Festival, a showcase for Scandinavian music and culture in China, in 2008. Three Nordic acts, headlined by Danish indie-rock band Efterklang, together with three local acts, joined other cultural events such as an exhibition of Scandinavian poster art. "It got a lot of press attention," he says, "but only about 200 people came. I lost a lot of money. It was on the same day as National Day, and everything was really expensive, especially hotels. I didn't know that beforehand. I certainly won't forget this festival, but I learnt a lot."

For the forthcoming anniversary show, he says, "we wanted a band that was different. Hotel New Tokyo have a really big sound; for me, it's the perfect music for the anniversary." The only problem is, with two bands and their crew, Ieong is bringing 22 people to Hong Kong. "So the cost is crazy, but it's something I really want to do."

Doing what he really wants to do despite improbable hurdles has defined Ieong's career. In 2007, not satisfied with the shop and the gigs, he started the record label. His first band, and the White Noise label's biggest seller to this day, were Toe. Again, Ieong was the first to ask the band to do a show outside Japan, contacting them through MySpace and then meeting them while on holiday in Japan.

"I came back to Hong Kong and found that it was impossible - with all their luggage and so on, I couldn't break even in Hong Kong, not even if the show sold out. So I decided to do a tour, which I had no experience with, and I also decided to license their CD." The band played in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia to bigger crowds than Ieong had been expecting and a good relationship was established. From there it was a short step to licensing Toe's entire back catalogue across Asia ex-Japan.

In 2010, the shop moved to another Causeway Bay space, near Times Square, but struggled with high rents and a difficult location, and in 2013 moved again, to its current premises. White Noise's customers, says Ieong, are about 50 per cent local and 50 per cent tourists, people who seek out the best independent music shop in any city they visit. Ieong says the more obscure the artist, the better chance he has of selling their music. "If I'm selling you an Oasis record, we don't need to talk - you know what you're getting. It's better when I can talk to people, find out what they like, open CDs and play them."

Post-rock and math rock are the biggest sellers, and here Ieong sees cause for optimism, mentioning the rapturous reception from the sell-out crowd for last year's performance at The Vine in Wan Chai by Canadian post-rock legends Godspeed You! Black Emperor. "I'm really happy this kind of music is getting more of a local audience. I grew up with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but I never thought I'd see them here."

Perhaps finally, after 10 years, the rest of Hong Kong is catching up.