Writing a new chapter in books

Taiwanese bookstore chain Eslite hopes to pay off the hefty cost of opening its first Hong Kong branch within the year, while gearing up to move into the mainland market, its boss says.

'Our Hong Kong store is both a means and an end for our development plan outside of Taiwan,' said Catherine Wang Po-chi, operating director of Eslite's Causeway Bay store, which opens tomorrow.

The huge three-storey store will offer a platform for cultural exchanges between Taiwan and Hong Kong, involving books and other cultural activities, including the midnight forums with leading figures that are a popular feature at some of its 40 stores in Taiwan.

'We take a long-term perspective to nurture our circles and clients here through sharing and exchange,' she said, adding that the store had signed a 10-year lease at the new Hysan Place mall for an undisclosed discount price.

'We are honoured to partner with Hysan, whose long-term commitment to Causeway Bay and to the environmental cause, as manifested in this new building, strike a common note with us,' said Wang, who has been studying the local scene since moving to the city from Taiwan in December.

'Our success depends on the endorsement of the Hong Kong people, and for that we have to acquaint ourselves with their sentiments, thoughts and value system.'

The Hong Kong store is the first venture outside Taiwan for Eslite, which was founded in 1989.

The initial investment had exceeded the original budget of NT$180 million (HK$4.8 million) because of the high cost of operating in one of the world's most expensive shopping areas, Wang said. 'We receive no subsidy from the Taipei government but we welcome any input from them.'

Whether the chain added another branch in the city would depend on 'luck' she said, citing the tenancy deal offered by Hysan as an example.

Local cultural critic Ma Ka-fai expects Eslite to bring about a fundamental change in the relationship between book stores and readers.

'Right now it's between seller and buyer. But Eslite will change all that by nurturing a culture that gets readers to look for some event there, be it a forum at midnight or an exhibition around the clock,' said Ma, who will host the store's first midnight session tomorrow when he chats with local film director Pang Ho-cheung at the store's 60-seat events venue.

'It will run from 11pm to 12.30am so it's crossing the weekend,' he said, adding that future guests would include celebrities such as Alice Mak Ka-bik, creator of the much-loved cartoon character McDull, and actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai. 'That is a way to nurture a critical mass, which will attract not only locals but also readers from across the border.'

The store will be open 24 hours on Thursday, Friday and Saturday on a trial basis until September 16. Wang said it would examine how much business it was doing in the early hours before making a commitment.

The Hong Kong experience would be a valuable reference for Eslite's first mainland branch, which is due to open in Suzhou in 2014, said Hsieh Shu-ching, Eslite's planning manager for the mainland project.

'Hong Kong is our first overseas store and we count on it for reference in adjustments and fine-tuning.'