Tea Leaf Nation
A Taiwanese Literary Landmark Comes to China’s Venice
The new bookstore from chain Eslite, known for offering yoga and tea lattes, will inevitably include a side of censorship.
A sprawling brick-and-mortar bookstore may seem like a risky investment in one of the world’s most tightly censored nations. And yet in November 2015, the hugely popular Taiwanese bookstore chain Eslite opened its first flagship store in mainland China. Located in the southern city of Suzhou’s ritzy central business district, Eslite Suzhou appears to be anything but a bookstore: the four-floored, 56,000 square-meter multiplex, with its lofty stone staircase and glass windows, has more of the vibe of a museum, or perhaps an airport terminal. In addition to perusing more than 150,000 titles, a customer can sample organic oolong tea, meditate quietly in the yoga room, or watch an experimental theatre show in the attached performance hall.
Eslite is a bookstore chain with 43 branches across Taiwan and Hong Kong, with total sales at $118 million in the last year alone. It’s become a cultural landmark: young Taiwanese consider the 24-hour Dunnan store in the capital of Taipei the cool place to be on a Saturday night, and it is one of the standard stops on the itinerary for mainland Chinese tourists in search of books banned back home. That reputation has helped bring it success on the mainland; even amid rigid censorship and a rapidly declining print book industry, Eslite Suzhou is thriving. More than 1 million visitors flocked to the store within 20 days of its opening, hoping to get a taste of the famous Eslite experience. That’s because the iconic store offers more than just books – it’s a hub of culture and bourgeois intellectualism, meeting an increasing demand among mainland consumers for the sophisticated and elegant lifestyle of Taiwanese yuppies.
Eslite’s success in undemocratic China may seem implausible. But while Taiwan may be a flourishing democracy now, when Taiwanese business mogul Robert Wu first opened Eslite in 1989 in Taipei, the self-governing island did not look all that different from China today.
At the time, Taiwan was still under the single-party rule of the Nationalist government, which then-President Lee Tung-hui had inherited from his predecessor Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Chiang Kai-shek, exiled leader of the Republic of China. Under Lee’s tenure, the government was only beginning to undergo democratic reform and relax its stringent laws of censorship. Wang Shouren, who founded the Taiwanese publishing company Yuan Liou Publishing Co 40 years ago, told Foreign Policy that the industry was tough then. Pro-Communist and anti-Nationalist texts were banned from circulation. “Anything critical of the Chiang family could not be put on the shelves,” Wang said, “much like critiques of [Chinese president] Xi Jinping’s family dynasty is banned on the mainland today.”
Taiwan in the late 1980s was also undergoing rapid economic growth, as China is now. Publishing evolved to profit from the island’s new consumerism. “More Taiwanese wanted to buy houses, and to flaunt their new wealth, [they] would buy liquor cabinets to display imported Western wines,” explained Wang. “So we started selling large sets of glossy coffee table books, and created an advertisement at the time that had the slogan: “replace your liquor shelves with bookshelves!” Carrying a little black Eslite membership card quickly became an indication of status for the burgeoning middle class. “When somebody asked about your day, you didn’t just say that you hung out in a bookstore,” said Sun Yaling, a Chinese language teacher. “You said that you hung out at Eslite bookstore.” As a young college student at the time, she was intimidated by the store, which sold mostly books on Western art and culture. For the burgeoning Taiwanese middle class, Eslite made reading cool.
Now, Eslite is using a similar strategy on the mainland. “The bookstore is attracting customers who want to consume the lifestyle, the same way someone would’ve wanted to consume a Louis Vuitton bag,” said Shelley Rigger, professor of East Asian politics at Davidson College in North Carolina and an expert in cross-Strait economic relations. “But what do fancy people do now? They read. It is meeting a deeper hunger in China for a lifestyle grounded in simple values rather than raw consumption.”
Fucha Heyan, a native of the large northeastern city of Shenyang who moved to Taiwan eight years ago to work for publishing company Eight Flags, believes that Eslite’s success comes from what he called its “unique business model,” one embodied by the slogan in big letters at the front of the store’s entrance: “Books and Everything in Between.” Books are an increasingly unprofitable product both in China and around the world, and they comprise around 30 percent of Eslite’s sales. The rest — the secret to the company’s survival — comes from the everything in between: items like food, kitchenware, art-house cinemas, reading clubs, and hotels. Through this jack-of-all-trades business model, Eslite provides young urban Chinese with the chance to live out an increasingly accepted idea of modern life: sitting in a coffee shop on weekends, savoring foreign literature over an iced tea latté, and scouting potential dates.
Lifestyle is one of the most successful Taiwanese cultural exports to mainland China, according to Rigger. She cites the successes of 85C, a Taiwan-based coffee chain, and Christine, a Taiwan-based bakery chain, as examples. “These companies thrive off selling a more sophisticated and urbane way of living,” said Rigger. “You go in to these coffee shops and there are booths, long tables, dark interiors. You do business the Taiwanese way. You get rice with Taiwanese ribs, get pastries with coffee.”
Eslite has been juggling its identity as a bookseller with corporate demands for the last 20 years, shrinking its emphasis on books and focusing on its lifestyle brand Eslite Spectrum, which helped to compensate for declining book sales. The company even boasts a real estate venture, Eslite Residence, which has had a hand in building two luxury residential buildings overlooking the tranquil scenery of Jinji Lake in Suzhou.
Such strategic diversification has the added benefit of making Eslite’s success as a company less vulnerable to censorship. Books are highly sensitive in mainland China, their production and sale intensely regulated by the Chinese government. All of the roughly 580 book publishers in the country are state-owned. In order to get their books to the Chinese reader, foreign publishers hoping to gain entry in the market must go through a convoluted set of rules and regulations set by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. Although foreign retailers are legally permitted to engage in the sale of books, they are severely constrained in terms of what they can sell: inspection occurs at both the pre-and-post publication stages. Customers at Eslite Suzhou will, of course, not be sipping tea alongside a riveting read on Tibetan independence or the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Visitors to the Suzhou store should not expect to find the breadth of publications that they would in the Taiwan branches, like speeches by ex Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian, whose staunch pro-independence policies are a nuisance to the Chinese government, or Taiwanese public intellectual Lung Ying-Tai’s “Big River, Big Sea,” a searing critique of the Communist Party’s policies during the Chinese Civil War which ended in 1949. (Eslite declined to have a representative interviewed for this article.)
Publishers like Fucha and Fang are concerned that Eslite’s mainland operations may make its branches elsewhere vulnerable to pressure from Beijing. According to a June 2014 report in Hong Kong news outlet Apple Daily, Eslite pulled Tibet-related books off the shelves of its Hong Kong branch and allegedly issued an in-company document prohibiting its workers to make comments about the company on social media without approval.
Operating within the rigid constraints of the mainland ecosystem, Eslite could simply become another virtual China experience like the Internet: carefully manicured and controlled by higher authorities. “Can Eslite, a bookstore cultivated in a free society,” asked Fucha, “be replanted on mainland Chinese soil?” He was uncertain. “All I know is that once Eslite enters the Mainland, it will no longer be Eslite as we know it.”
Eslite’s now Suzhou bookstore may not provide as diverse a selection of books available on the island. But to mainland Chinese consumers, perhaps the aura of sophistication is enough – for now.
Top image: Eslite Bookstore Kaohsiung Chiayi Store. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Wing1990hk