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Chieh-Ting Yeh

Taiwanese Mega Bookstore Causes Frenzy in Hong Kong: Point for Taiwan in Cultural War?

Eslite Causeway Bay (from Eslite HK's Facebook Page)

As any self-respecting booklover in Taipei knows, you can immerse yourself in the endless variety of glossy printed books at the Eslite Bookstore on Dunhua South Road. 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Moreover, the flagship store near Taipei 101 stocks toys, stationery, music and lifestyle goods in addition to three floors of books. Wrap all this up in a soft and stylish interior, and it is a must-see destination for anyone visiting from Hong Kong or China with a literary bent. 

It was expected, then, that it was big news in Hong Kong this past week when Eslite opened its first overseas branch in the busy Causeway Bay shopping district. Plopping one of the largest retailers of books and lifestyle goods in the middle of Hong Kong’s mad-dash shopping scene has made quite a splash. Many locals and tourists either clocked in at Eslite, like @Jasminebaby88 (I’m just here to see it for myself {{1}}[[1]] 新開的台式“誠品書店“,來凑凑熱鬧[[1]] ), or expressed how badly they wanted to be there. @黄馨Helen-  had nothing but praise in her tweet on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter: “I went to Eslite Causeway yesterday and was totally blown away. It was a kingdom for books, and the design was breathtaking…I wish everyone can see its grandeur for themselves. It’s not an intimidating grandeur, but a heartfelt richness. Thank you Eslite!” {{2}}[[2]] 昨天去了香港铜锣湾的诚品书店,真的令我大开眼界啊!这才是一个书的王国啊!而且室内设计得如此夺人眼球啊!大家有机会自己也去感受下她的宏伟!但是并不是咄咄逼人的强大,而是让人打从心底里地佩服的强大啊!感谢诚品书店![[2]] @王川ALEX from Shenzhen said “It’s a challenge to have a slow-style bookstore in fast-paced Hong Kong, but I want to say on behalf of all of us in Shenzhen: Please open a branch here!” {{3}}[[3]]在快节奏的香港推出慢节奏的诚品,实乃一挑战,关注运营方式及生命力。代表深圳人民说一声:诚品快来深圳吧[[3]] For these enthusiastic fans, Eslite has decided to leave the door open on an experimental basis for 24 hours a day from Thursday through Saturday each week.

"Hard to believe this is a bookstore, right?"

But not everyone was impressed. Many people complained about the crowd that stuffed the store like an oversized Thanksgiving turkey at all times of the day. @villagekid snapped the picture to the right: “Hard to believe this is a bookstore, right?” {{4}}[[4]] 很难想像这是在书店吧。[[4]] @enya元 likened the crowd to people at a museum. “The merchandise really is refined, and there is a good reason why people want to come. At 11 PM the place is still filled with people. But the 24 hour bookstore to me is just a sales gimmick. I just don’t like how the world of books can also be so commercialized. I think coming once is enough.” {{5}}[[5]] 这里人涌如潮,如同参观博物馆(当然了,博物馆肯定没有这么多人),“货品”确实精致,不负eslite之名,惹人驻足也有来由。晚上十一点,深夜书堂,围观的人群把路围个水泄不通。所谓24小时不打烊书店,不过是吸金的噱头。我,只是不习惯书的世界也这么商业化。香港诚品书店,来过,就不再有念想 了。[[5]] @文艺青年_Nicole agrees: “It’s like a mall. All I saw were three words: commercialism, commercialism, commercialism.” {{6}}[[6]]新开幕不久的香港诚品像商场一样人头攒动。我只看到六个大字"商业,商业,商业"[[6]]

@enya元 may have unintentionally hit on something deeper. To her, the crowds filing in and out of Eslite were like the crowds at a museum; there to gawk, there to absorb some cultural ambience, there to scratch the surface of knowledge but hardly ever seeking to truly understand.

Benny Lau (劉偉恆), a film director in Hong Kong, mentioned in a recent blog post that when he told people he hasn’t been to the new Eslite, they gave him a face that seemed to say,“How can you not have made the pilgrimage already?” Lau recalls an encounter in Taipei’s Eslite a few years back:

“I was in Eslite a bit past midnight, and a group of women came in speaking at a piercingly loud decibel. What embarrassed me was that they were speaking in standard-issue Hong Kong Cantonese. ‘Hey, where are the magazines!?’ ‘I wish we had this in Hong Kong!’ and ‘My gosh it’s so quiet in here!’ …for them, Eslite was no more than a tourist spot.”

He concluded by asking, “Just like an annual book exhibition, do we in Hong Kong really enjoy reading? Or do we just want to look fashionable, look cultured, and get some free air conditioning?”

Eslite's store front

But there may be more to the hype than a Hong Kong-esque need to chase after fleeting trends. A Ming Pao (明报) editorial puts the spotlight on Eslite itself: “When you go to Eslite to buy books, the emphasis is on the ‘buy’, not the ‘books.’ It’s a bragging of taste…Out of the multitudes of independent bookstores in Taiwan, choosing to go to Eslite is just an act of showing off one’s luxury of having free time and expendable income.” Indeed, one may go into an Eslite store and confuse it for the other ubiquitous display of upper middle-class tastes: Starbucks. Often, you can even find an actual Starbucks stall inside Eslite.

Yet another commentator points out that Hong Kong, long derided as a ‘cultural desert’ by the rest of the Chinese-speaking world, is not without its culture; it’s just not as visible and clad in glitter as Eslite is. Chai Ziwen (柴子文), a co-founder of the Hong Kong-based mobile magazine iSunAffairs, explained that local Hong Kong bookstores are often tucked away from the street:

“You enter a narrow door and climb a dark staircase, open a heavy gate, and you’ll find a small space stacked with dusty books. These ‘second floor bookshops’ are found all over the place in the Causeway Bay and Mongkok neighborhoods, and they all have their specialties—some specialize in Communist China, others in erotica; some even make a side business importing Japanese baby formula.”

Chai wonders, “After leaving Eslite, I thought of these second floor bookshops. Will they go out of business? Will they combine their powers? And Taiwan’s Eslite also faces challenges of how to integrate with the flow of the local community.”

Suzhou Eslite under construction; the size of the politics section to be determined

While people in Hong Kong wonder about their love-hate relationship to the retailer from Taiwan, Eslite has already become the latest battle in the ongoing cultural war among the three “Chinese” societies: mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Some have already predicted that Eslite would bring more politically sensitive books, such as classics in political thought or works by dissidents, to Hong Kong. As more ordinary folks experience the three divergent societal regimes, whether as tourists, shoppers, gourmets, exchange students or intellectuals, the cultural clashes will only become more complicated. When Eslite opens its first mainland branch in Suzhou in 2014, how will people react then?

And what about the crowds at Eslite Hong Kong? Many share in the hopes of Phoenix TV anchor @谢亚芳: “I look forward to finding a solid and quiet corner after the hype fades away in a few months.” {{7}}[[7]] 期待兩三個月新鮮感過後,也能在香港誠品找到個踏實靜謐的角落。[[7]] 

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Chieh-Ting Yeh

Chieh-Ting Yeh was born in Taiwan but grew up in New York and Boston. He was active in Taiwanese American student circles and was part of the Harvard Asia Law Society. When he is not thinking about the relationship between Taiwan and China, he cooks and watches epic Japanese dramas. He is currently based in Silicon Valley.
  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    cosmos, metro, page one .. hong kong is not hurting for mellow bookstores … but even eslite is no kinokuniya or borders ..

  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    cosmos, metro, page one .. hong kong is not hurting for mellow bookstores … but even eslite is no kinokuniya or borders ..

  • Pingback: Paper tigers: Chinese bookstores on the rise | Buy Buy China

  • Jahar

    This is the state of society? we are reading about what people think of bookstores? going to bookstores to look around is what drives us? and giving commentary on it?

    • fsafasf

      Hey I’m just a bum, so I’m reading about your comment on people reading about what people think of bookstores. You on the other hand seems to want a better a state of society. Get a freaking life.

  • Jahar

    This is the state of society? we are reading about what people think of bookstores? going to bookstores to look around is what drives us? and giving commentary on it?

    • fsafasf

      Hey I’m just a bum, so I’m reading about your comment on people reading about what people think of bookstores. You on the other hand seems to want a better a state of society. Get a freaking life.

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