This is an article I wrote as a part of a publication named Community, in collaboration with WeWork. The publication profiles seven people who live and work in the city of Shanghai and how they shape a sense of connectedness within their communities.
In the introduction, I wrote: “Through them, we see a kaleidoscope of communities. To some of them, a community is about an area where they feel most comfortable to live and work, a place they come to have a common understanding of what each other is doing, and a neighborhood bar or cafe, or a social space where friends meet without having to make a plan with each other. Others view it as a togetherness formed by their common nature, interests, aesthetics and values. All of them continue to build, grow and retain a sense of community when facing challenges in times of change.”
Written by Xing Zhao | Photography by Wenjie Yang
At Uptown Records n’ Beer on Yongfu Lu, the pink-haired Sofia Wang pulled a black vinyl record out of its jacket, placed it on the turntable and lowered the needle into the groove, as we sat down on barstools in the tiny bodega well-stocked of records and craft beers. Softly music filled the air.
In the age of streaming music, many kids today have never in their lives seen a vinyl record or listened to music coming out of grooves, however, Sofia Wang has been working to build a platform for audiophiles and music lovers through her Uptown record stores since 2011. In the first few years, most of her customers were people in their 30s and 40s, including foreigners living in Shanghai. “But now, 70 to 80 percent of people coming to the stores are young Chinese people, and some of them are high school students,” she says.
Growing up in Shanghai in the 1990s, when popular formats used to listen to music were cassette tapes and later CDs, Wang had her initial encounter with vinyl records during her time working at the city’s legendary rock venue Yuyintang. From 2007 to 2012, she worked with bands and musicians, played keyboard in a band she started and met her husband, a DJ and San Francisco native with whom Wang opened the first Uptown Records store in 2011. “Vinyl has never been entirely replaced by cassettes, CDs or digital downloads in countries such as the US, Europe and Japan. Many musicians today continue to release vinyl versions of their music as special editions, just as new record players are also being produced.” Wang explains, “But when we opened our first store in Shanghai, there was almost no such thing as a vinyl culture here.”
The affordable rent of the store’s Pingwu Lu basement location offered an opportunity for the scene and culture to grow. Following the footsteps of the international trend of the format’s revival, in China, interest in vinyl began to rise, especially among young people. “With the Internet, they learn about vinyl records, particularly their more accurate and richer sound quality compared to digital recording, and they find out their favorite musicians are producing vinyl records.”
As Shanghai’s vinyl culture gradually picked up over the years, Wang also extended her business from the initial record store in the basement of a residential building to more forms. One Saturday every April, Shanghai’s vinyl stores from online and offline, independent music labels and music lovers gather at the annual market held at Uptown’s Pingwu Lu store, to trade and buy records and to celebrate the worldwide Record Store Day. Teamed up with another Shanghai record store Daily Vinyl, Uptown has also been producing a free quarterly print newsletter on vinyl culture and underground music since 2015. Moreover, Wang opened a second store Uptown Records n’ Beer in 2014, bringing her intention of a physical space where vinyl lovers can come browse, select, play and listen to records, as well as to communicate with one another into a new context.
“We wanted to have a small common space where friends can come have a beer together, chat and listen to music,” she explains. “Later more people came, and for some, it was a discovery of a whole new world.” Compared to digital downloads, according to Wang, a vinyl album costs 100 to 300 RMB, and it requires a record player, but it brings far more joy than music itself: “Someone new to the store might find themselves at a loss looking at stacks of records they’ve never heard of before. For them, I would recommend a Beatles or a Rolling Stones record, a jazz, a Soul Funk, or an indie Chinese musician, but the most fun part of picking out a record in a physical store is the discovery process. We are happy for people to choose whatever they want to listen to in the store, even if they are not buying at all.”
For Wang, Uptown is not only a platform where people meet to share their love for music and vinyl culture, but it is also her community and her way of life. Her two stores were once surrounded by all of the city’s major music venues. The neighboring dive bar Dada used to be the hosting venue for the Record Store Day market after-parties, the independent music streaming platform Shanghai Community Radio broadcasted out of Uptown’s Pingwu Lu basement when they started out, and friends from the underground dance club Shelter on Yongfu Lu often hung out at her Uptown Records n’ Beer before the club was closed down permanently. “We used to have a great independent music culture community around this area,” she lets out a sigh. “But now Logo on Xingfu Lu closed, Arcade on Fuxing Lu closed, the jazz club JZ moved, and the club Arkham also moved, most of our neighbors are gone, due to rent rises and other reasons.”
This area still holds a place special in Wang’s heart. Wang continues to retain her community by inviting DJs to play in the store once a month before uploading the recordings of the performance onto the music podcast site NTS to share with music lovers around the globe. Friends at Split Works, Uptown’s neighbor and live music promoter remained on Yongfu Lu, still come round for beer, put up their show posters on the walls and hold their ticket pre-sales in the store. Neighbors drop by with their dogs to check out the latest arrivals of records or to have a drink. “We feel deeply attached to the area,” says Wang. “This is where we feel most comfortable, and I hope our store will continue to stay here.”