When the sound of the erhu emanates from a particular stretch of Pasar Besar Ipoh, Perak’s central market, that simply means Cheng Ah Lek is at his record store for a day’s work. The proprietor of Perniagaan Nanyang has been selling vinyl LPs for more than 40 years, having opened his first shop on Osborne Street (now Jalan Dato Tahwil Azhar) in 1974.
“I opened another shop in Yau Tet Shin market in 1984, but closed it two years later when I fell ill,” said the gregarious 74-year-old. Ultimately, the original Osborne Street store is what lasted longest, and Cheng was there until the turn of the millennium, when the owner of the lot eventually sold it.
This writer recalls visiting that store in the late 1990s and leaving with cartfuls of records on a number of occasions. With Chen having sold records for so long, he had an amazing inventory then.
According to him, he had tens of thousands of titles, though in the last 16 years, that volume has decreased tremendously. Good titles can still be had, from the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Bad Company, Deep Purple and BB King.
What’s great about Chen’s collection is the condition of his records ... they are largely NOS (new old stock titles), effectively meaning, they are unplayed records. And there’s been a copy of 10cc’s Deceptive Bends sitting there for months now, just waiting for the right music lover to claim it.
But English music only makes up part of his wares. He also has a sterling spread of Malay and Chinese records, and it clearly fills him with pride to talk about his collection. “I used to sell a lot of Malay records. Three years ago, a number of Penangites bought up my stock of Malay titles, which included P. Ramlee, Sudirman, Alleycats, Search and Wings records,” he said.
His Chinese music records were equally sought after – only a couple of years ago, a customer (and seller) bought RM4,000 worth of LPs.
And this clientele, while mainly domestic in nature, comes from KL, Penang, Johor and even Sabah, having been clued in to Perniagaan Nanyang and its treasures.
The reason he has continued to sell briskly is – and this is the real clincher with his store – he sells them at their original asking price. So, if a weather-worn price tag from the early 1980s reads $14.90, then that’s just what a customer would have to pay. In fact, he even eliminates the decimal point, so RM14 is all it would cost.
However, Chen rues his move from Osborne Street: “Business here is not so good. This area (Super Kinta shopping centre) used to be more lively even up to the late 1990s, but not anymore.” Still, even with dwindling fortunes, the former Poi Lam school student pots around his store and goes about his daily business every day, except Sundays.
As an ardent music listener himself, he has always been partial to the sound of vinyl. “Nothing beats the sound of records. CDs can’t even come close to cassettes,” he said. Interestingly, he still has cassettes on sale, and seeing titles by the likes of Roxette and Ace Of Base provide a reminder of how dismal music was in the early 1990s, though collectors could easily drool at what’s on display.
Music software apart, Chen has a number of erhus on sale, of varying conditions and qualities, and from time to time, he takes them out for a play. “I learnt the instrument when I was 12, and I still play today.” And true to his word, he whipped one out and played a couple of tunes right there and then.
Chen doesn’t only listen to music, he knows how to make it himself, even if that royal audience stands at one.
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