Taipei's famous bookshops turn over new leaf in the story of economic success

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 February, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 February, 2000, 12:00am

Chung King South Road in Taipei used to be a mecca for Hong Kong bookworms. Each year, tens of thousands of visitors went there for shopping sprees.

They would fly home with Chinese classics, computer literature, dictionaries and translations of foreign novels.

The book heaven is a small area in front of the famous New Park near Taipei train station. Years ago, only two types of shops dominated the streets there. First were what Taiwanese called yin lou, or silver shops. The yin lou were a product of Taiwan's stringent foreign exchange controls. They changed US dollars for local currency at black-market rates.

As Taiwanese grew richer and the Government became more confident about its economy, exchange controls were gradually lifted. Only a few yin lou are left and they mostly sell antiques or second-hand goods.

The second type were bookstores, selling almost every Chinese book in print.

Before Taiwan strengthened its copyright laws, they had perhaps the best collection of Chinese translations of foreign literature - legally and illegally. But best of all was that saving on royalties meant most translations were so cheap Hong Kong people were willing to pay for air tickets to fill their suitcases.

One reason behind Chung King South Road's literary atmosphere was the large number of tutoring classes nearby.

Each year, tens of thousands of Taiwanese high-school students have to sit their university entrance examinations. The intense competition drove many students to slave in Taiwan's infamous bushiban cram schools. With thousands of students coming and going, selling books was a natural business choice.

Chung King South Road flourished in the 1970s also because it was perhaps the biggest market for Chinese literature at the time. While mainland publishers had yet to learn the rules of market supply and demand, Taiwan already boasted a huge market of consumers because of the island's relatively high education level. The public's interest in books was also spurred by the rise of a few local writers.

Into the new century, Chung King South Road has begun to take on a more modern outlook. In addition to bookstores, the area is home to new shops selling cosmetics, fast food and CDs. Even the legendary New Park was renamed the '228 Memorial Park' a few years ago by former Taipei mayor Chen Shui-bian to mark the February 28, 1947, incident, a failed uprising of local residents against the Kuomintang government, as a sign of Taiwan's move toward embracing democracy.

The bookstores have changed too. Big franchises have moved in. Newcomers line their shelves with books about the Internet and fashion magazines from Japan.

Chung King South Road is like a microcosm of Taiwan's changing society. Unlike their parents who toiled in sweatshops to build Taiwan's economy in the 1970s, Taiwanese today build powerful laptop computers.

They are wealthier and more confident about their future.

Their knowledge about the West is no longer confined to the translations they read but based more on first-hand experience.

A key factor behind the recent book boom was the Government's removal of all publishing restrictions. In 1997, more than 27,000 new titles were released. Officials have also done an impressive job in wiping out piracy.

The affluent Taiwanese can now also afford a more deluxe shopping experience. The biggest chain store now is perhaps the Eslite group catering to a richer and younger clientele.

Next week, Taipei will play host to world publishers by holding a huge book fair. Hailed as the largest such fair in Asia, the Taipei International Book Exhibition could be a reason for Hong Kong bookworms to dust off their suitcases and head for Taipei.