Recently, I needed to get hold of a recording of Francois Borne’s Grande Fantasia on themes from Carmen in its orchestral version. There were a few other things I needed and, knowing that I had to be in Hong Kong this week, I didn’t risk the blood-pressure-rising trawl through the deeply depressing CD shelves in Singapore shops, but decided to wait. Arrived on Thursday and, after a couple of meetings, jumped on the MTR to Mongkok and the rarefied atmosphere of Sun Cheong records. I spent a good 45 minutes there, browsing their vast stock of independent labels, picked up six CDs and only as I was about to pay did I realise I’d forgotten all about the Borne. The incredibly helpful and knowledgeable staff took about three minutes to look up and jot down the eight discs it was on from their own online database (compare this with HMV Singapore’s use of the three-year-old Muze Classical Catalogue and, even more ridiculously, the Penguin CD Guide), but regretted that while the flute and piano version (on Capriccio and Danacord) were in stock, the orchestral version on ABC Classics, Pearl and Vanguard recordings were not (“I can’t tell how quickly I can get Vanguard – they’re very intermittent. Pearl seems to have discontinued it. I can get the ABC Classics but it will take a fortnight”). They also pointed out that the orchestral version was available on EMI and Bis, neither of which Sun Cheong stocks, but directed me round the corner to Win Win records in Lady Street; “Would you like me to phone them and see if they have it?”. I prefer to browse, so with a promise that I would be back and order the ABC Classics if my search proved fruitless, I set off.
I regret I had not experienced the CD haven which is Lady Street, Mongkok before. Not realising that this is back to back CD emporia, I dived into the first shop I saw, picked up a couple of Delos CDs and an original Russian Melodiya, and then realised that there was neither Bis nor EMI here. Back to Sun Cheong, but then, turning the wrong way out of that store, I found next door yet another great stockist of classical CDs. In short, I spent two hours in four shops, all of which were thoroughly stocked with different labels, crammed with customers and with helpful – if often non-English speaking – staff. I found the Borne, not in Win Win, but two doors away, in the most amazing shop I have ever been in.
CDs (classical, Chinese, ethnic and jazz) lay around on tables – no shelves – rather like a church jumble sale. Clearly I was never going to find what I wanted, but a member of staff who asked if he could help, went straight for it and plucked out the EMI version. I stayed on to try and fathom out the filing system, but it defeated me. Who cares. I found what I wanted and ended up with over a dozen other CDs which, even as I am writing this, I am enjoying – Rachmaninov’s Aleko on Melodiya is the one at the moment.
So, before all Singaporeans quietly allow their CD shops to fade away in the mistaken belief that it is an inevitable consequence of the current msu8cial climate, let them look to Hong Kong, where Classical CD shops are very much alive and kicking. It’s worth the air fare just to see how the other half lives! But one thing occurs to me: Malaysia – no CD shops but a fantastic orchestra; Hong Kong – loads of CD shops but a somewhat ropey orchestra. Should we read anything into that?