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How Hak Hak Manufacture is Cutting Out a Vinyl Record Niche in Guangdong

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In the past six to eight months, a mysterious entity known as Hak Hak Manufacture has been steadily going about its work in Shenzhen. Its business? Lathe-cut vinyl records.

According to its Facebook page, Hak Hak Manufacture is the first hi-fi lathe cut vinyl company in Mainland China, and aims to to provide a cheap and efficient way for small indie bands to publish their music on LP format.

Not only that, but the nature of lathe-cut vinyl — as opposed to industrial, mass-produced vinyl presses — means that DJs, MCs and romantics can use Hak Hak’s services to make small-run vinyl mixtapes for gigs, mixing, or for their friends and family.

Hak Hak’s first release was Some Kind of Demon (某一種惡魔), a 7” record by Beijing-based duo 工工工 (Gong Gong Gong) that the band sold at shows in Guangzhou last month. The band’s members, Joshua Frank and Tom Ng, are known for their forays into DIY physical releases, especially cassettes that they’ve self-released for their band, and for previous projects on their (now defunct) cassette label Rose Mansion Analog.

Besides limited collector runs for well-established acts such as Beijing experimental rock duo Dear Eloise and Shanghai’s “harsh noise” provocateur Torturing Nurse, lathe-cut vinyl has seen limited release in China. While bands on the rosters of some of the country’s largest Indie labels can just as easily release pressed vinyl through companies like Guangzhou-based YongTong, less established, DIY pockets of local alternative music scenes across China have found themselves searching for an alternative to shipping vinyl outside of the country, or weighing themselves down with unrealistically large runs.

That situation is now changing. Throughout last year and the early part of 2018, Hong Kong-based label Sweaty & Cramped released a run of four vinyl records for four separate indie bands under its “This Ain’t Gonna Cut It” series. The impetus for that, it seems, was to allow local bands like David Boring and OH! NULLAH a way to preserve their music beyond the realm of digital downloads.

Sweaty & Cramped is not the first Asian label to do this, and it probably won’t be the last, but its engagement with local bands and its selection of the lathe-cut vinyl format has gone a long way toward changing the idea that bands need to sit around and wait for a big label to physically publish their material.

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“I think most of the bands here [in China] are still passively waiting to be signed by labels, so they don’t really release music on their own as much as I’d hoped for,” says Tom Ng of Gong Gong Gong. “Hak Hak is really cool, as they provide a lathe cut service at an affordable price, but I am more concerned [about whether] they have enough customers to keep them alive.”

Until recently, it had been decades since China’s last vinyl pressing line had shut its doors. In 2015, YongTong general manager Cheng Yingming was inspired by his son’s burgeoning interest in the seemingly outdated physical format, and re-established a pressing factory in China from his perch in Guangzhou, one of the country’s major manufacturing centers. YongTong now runs multiple production lines, and is capable of knocking out hundreds of records per day.

That’s not to say that there had been no vinyl released in the intervening years, but the cost of shipping to and from the foreign countries with the few remaining global vinyl plants discouraged many bands in China from taking what seemed like a large financial risk. A small group of indie-to-the-core labels — most prominently, Beijing-based Genjing Records — nonetheless persisted, helping to popularize the format on the Mainland.

Nevin Domer, who has worked in Beijing’s music industry since 2005 and founded Genjing in 2010, says that he was motivated by a documentary impulse:

I hope that the Genjing catalog will be appreciated by Chinese vinyl collectors into the future and that the bands we documented on wax will be remembered. If it wasn’t us though someone else would have done it, and as a matter of fact there were a few Chinese metal labels that started releasing on vinyl around the same time, or maybe even earlier than Genjing. But for sure Genjing and Maybe Mars helped to kickstart the trend of every Chinese indie band wanting to release on vinyl.

Hak Hak Manufacture’s lathe

While internationally known labels such as Genjing Records and Maybe Mars — where Domer also works, and which has also hopped aboard the vinyl bandwagon — are located in Beijing, it seems somehow fitting that the hardware for pressing home-grown records should be based down south. Importing the requisite machinery to Chinese ports is expensive and risky. On the other side of a short stretch of water from Shenzhen lies the port of Hong Kong, however, which has the benefit of being duty- and tax-free for imports, and makes things easier for companies to clear machinery through customs. From there, it’s a short car journey into the Mainland, although naturally, a small vinyl manufacturing machine might look somewhat suspicious at customs.

Hak Hak Manufacture is in the awkward position of explaining that it doesn’t intend to run its vinyl line like a purely-for-profit business. Rather, it hopes to introduce a homemade, artist-first approach to the process of pressing records.

The vitality of Guangdong’s underground cultural scene rests in the hands of an idealistic few, whether one is talking about music, art, vinyl, or most other creative pursuits. Local DIY labels Qiii Snacks Records and Boring Productions have both dipped their toes in the vinyl market, while also releasing through CD and cassette tape.

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In the provincial capital of Guangzhou, Vinyl House (臻音堂) remains the best and most reliable physical shop for LPs, while independent vinyl stalls in Dashatou electronics market also help prop up the city’s demand for hold-it-in-your-hand vinyl shopping. In Shenzhen, the newly opened M Hotel has fitted turntables and a selection of rock, electronic, and jazz records, as well as an archive of famous records stored in its “Vinyl Library.”

The vinyl culture in southern China is by no means large, but it is growing. As has been noted throughout the global vinyl renaissance, LP sales and figures may be increasing, but vinyl will remain a niche product.

The format is perhaps equally important to bands as it is to collectors. In the face of the current digital zeitgeist, musicians are realizing the importance of documenting their music for posterity, and while cassette tapes and CDs can do this as well, vinyl’s long history and continued reinvention attest to the fact that it may just be the best format for musicians looking to make their own mark on history, big or small.

Cover photo: Beijing duo Gong Gong Gong‘s “Some Kind of Demon” 7″, pressed by Hak Hak Manufacture in a limited run of 50 copies and available only at the band’s live shows.

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Seamus Moore
    Seamus is a Shanghai based editor and writer with an interest in health, technology, science, the arts, culture and everything in between.