Book review: Paul's Records is part biography, part history and a little confusing

Book tells an interesting story with much meandering and digression

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 November, 2015, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 November, 2015, 12:02pm

Paul's Records

by Andrew S. Guthrie

Blacksmith Books

Paul's Records can't quite decide what kind of book it is. Part biography, part history, part cultural theory, it can be as confusing as that sounds, but is also an insightful glimpse into Hong Kong musical history and into one of the city's most singular characters.

Ostensibly this slim, fairly text-light volume, handsomely illustrated with full-colour photos, is the story of Paul Au - and a gripping story it is. Born in Vietnam of southern Chinese extraction, Au lived in Saigon during the Vietnam War, picking up a love of American music, particularly rock 'n' roll, from American Forces Vietnam Radio; he learned English by deciphering lyrics using a dictionary. His recollection of his childhood vividly conjures up both the fog of war and Saigon's vibrant cultural milieu.

Smuggled out in 1974 to avoid the military draft, he came to stay with relatives in Hong Kong. He spent all his spare money on records, and eventually became a record dealer by default, first on the Kowloon streets, where he took to sleeping to watch over his records, despite owning a 100 sq ft rooftop squat nearby, and later at his own preposterously vinyl-packed shop in Sham Shui Po. He also has crammed 1,000 sq ft storage space in Tuen Mun; between them they house more than 50,000 records in a mind-blowing range of styles.

Fascinating as this all is, the book is hampered by a slightly strange structure: its starts with a lengthy introduction by Guthrie, then a biographical section in Au's own voice, then a lengthy 1985 Hong Kong Daily News article about Au that revisits a lot of the same material, then a bit more Au, and then a lot more Guthrie, most of it about the cultural significance of Au's record collection. The whole book is interspersed with sections about records of particular significance for Au. These make for a highly informative account of Hong Kong's evolving music and culture, but frequently interrupt the narrative mid-sentence.

Guthrie's enthusiasm for music and for vinyl shines out as much as Au's. Unfortunately he also has a mildly flabby writing style, full of explanations, digressions and an eye-straining profusion of parentheses. His rendering of Au's voice is deftly handled, though, telling his story in simple, direct, page-turning fashion. There should be more of it: interesting as Guthrie's stabs at cultural theory can be, the book's structure can sometimes make Paul's Records off-puttingly uneven. As an account of the evolution of both a man and city, though, it's a compelling read.