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Sound of the Century

Sat, 17th Apr 2010
Macao is famous for its many museums. One gem is the Sound of the Century Museum, which documents the recent history of audio technology. (April 2010)

It features hundreds of antique recording and sound devices of the last century; the first was created by the great inventor Thomas Edison.
Inside this two-storey private museum are well-preserved phonographs, gramophones, cylinder records, music boxes, old telephones, vintage television sets and juke boxes. The most eye-catching items in this small exhibition hall on Rua das Estalagens are phonographs and gramophones of 1898-1911. Each has a majestic, high-end swan-neck Cygnet horn, made of wood, fibre, or brass. The case, oak or mahogany, is decorated with mouldings, columns and carvings. The finishing is exquisite, tempting the visitor to touch it. Phonographs play two- or four-minute cylinder records, made of a metallic soap called wax in the industry; gramophones play plastic black records.
Before Edison, sound could not be recorded and played back. Music could only be heard in concerts and live performances. Edison made his revolutionary invention in 1877, the first tin-foil phonograph, and recorded and played the famous tune, ‘Mary has a little lamb’, from round cylinders. In 1887, Emile Berliner, another great inventor, made a second breakthrough: he recorded sounds on flat disks or records made of glass and later zinc. The records rotated on a gramophone, a playback machine that used a needle to sense and transmit sound vibrations.

Edison, Berliner, Victor and Columbia brands shown in the museum

In the museum, you can see at close range many of these remarkable talking machines, with the brand names of Edison, Berliner and the equally famous Victor and Columbia. Even after all these years, they still produce a crisp, clear sound. Each machine is a work of art in itself, produced and operated by hand, in an era when such products were a luxury for the lucky few in the western world.
To tell the full story of sound, the museum also features electrical products of more recent times – the world’s first transistor radio (1954) the first cassette-tape recorder (1965), the first Sony walkman (1979) and the first CD player.

The value of vintage sound machines

Henry Chan, owner of the electrical appliance chain Tai Peng in Macao, collected these vintage items over 20 years and from many countries. Chan’s passion stemmed from his professional interest in electrical products. He worked his way up from being an apprentice of electrical engineering into a successful businessman. When he was young, electrical products were out of reach for most people. “In the 1960s, Macao was like a village. The average monthly salary was 15 patacas, while an appliance cost several hundred. I never saw a tape recorder and electric fans were rare. People then paid one cent to sit in a herbal tea shop, to listen to the broadcasts from a big radio. Every weekend, the shop would be packed with people tuning in to broadcasts of football matches.”
Such deprivation at a young age made Chan sensitive to the value of vintage sound machines when he spotted them for the first time in Canada, where he emigrated in 1990. “I saw a lovely classical radio of the 1930s in an antique shop in downtown Toronto. I said to myself: ‘how could something be so old and yet so beautiful?’ It is incredible that a machine can produce such beautiful sounds, without the use of electricity,” he said. “Then I started to read and learn about these machines. I joined interest groups, went to auctions and bought a lot of junk. My wife said: ‘if you really like this old stuff, why not spend a bit more and invest in quality items?’ I did. Once I went down that route, it became uncontrollable and my collection grew.
“I agonise a great deal in deciding whether to buy an item or not. It is not only a matter of money. There were occasions when I regretted not being willing to pay slightly more for an item that would not be available again in the market for a long, long time,” he said. For example, phonographs and cylinders with Chinese characters on them are extremely rare; Chan has a few in his collection.

From Canada to Macao

When he returned to Macao to manage his business, he brought his collection back and organised it for public viewing. The museum, inside one of his retail shops, opened on December 4, 2002, the 125th anniversary of Edison’s birth. “He was a great man, with over 1,300 patents when he died in 1877. He led humankind into the electrical and electronic era,” he said. There is a bust of Edison and a replica of his first phonograph in the museum.
In another corner is a replica of a famous painting of Edison’s age of acoustics. Called ‘His Master’s Voice’, it shows Nipper, a fox terrier, listening to a wind-up gramophone. “This is one of the world’s top brands,” said Chan.  He takes delight in showing guests where he calls his ‘toys’, each with a story behind it. One is a Victor gramophone of 1904, with a beautifully crafted wooden horn, for playing plastic 78 rpm discs. He bought it from an 80-year-old Canadian who was willing to sell it because he thought he would not live long. The seller, however, lived until 91 and regretted parting with it so soon.
The museum has been a big success, particularly with mainland Chinese, most of whom have not seen such a comprehensive range of western-made, antique sound machines in one place and not locked in glass cases. One Beijing man, Li Hongtao, wrote on his blog in October 2006 how he was overwhelmed by what he saw: “I am a musician and the impact of the collection on me was beyond words. When I saw the rows and rows of phonographs and gramophones, I could not help but exclaim ‘Wow!’. If you ever go to Macao, you must go to the museum and hear for yourself the beautiful sounds of a century ago.” Chan has many fans like Li. “I have received many complimentary letters, more than other museums. Some people came to Macao just to visit my museum, like the Shanghai couple I received this morning.”
Chan likes to show his guests how the machines work. He will wind up the music box or start the phonograph playing a cylinder record. “Many guests were deeply impressed by the sound of a century ago and could not help but clap their hands.” Such applause is a salute to the beautiful craftsmanship of a past era that can still be seen in this little capsule of sound.


By Staff Reporter in Macao

(Issue N. 3, April 2010)