Taiwanese founder of Eslite book chain dies at 66

Robert Wu Ching-yu launched the first 24-hour bookshop in Taipei

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 July, 2017, 11:48pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 July, 2017, 12:05am

Robert Wu Ching-yu, whose well-known chain Eslite brought the novelty of a 24-hour bookshop to the Taiwanese capital, has died from a heart condition at 66.

Wu collapsed in his Taipei ­office on Tuesday and was taken to the Taipei Medical University Hospital at about 7pm, where he was pronounced dead.

The Eslite Group confirmed his death in a short statement.

Wu, who was the founder and chairman of the group, reportedly suffered from a congenital heart condition and had undergone several operations over the years.

Taiwanese bookstore chain Eslite opens second outlet in Hong Kong amid tourism slump

He opened the first Eslite Bookstore in Taipei in 1989, a year after his first major heart surgery. Wu, who was born in the coastal city of Tainan, later said he had experienced an epiphany at that time, and felt driven to start an “eternal business” promoting the culture of reading in Taiwan.

Eslite grew into a well-known chain offering a unique “must-visit” experience for Chinese speakers, described by former Taichung mayor Jason Hu Chih-chiang as the “pride of Taiwan”. There are now 42 of the bookstores in Taiwan, three in Hong Kong and one on the mainland – in Suzhou, Jiangsu.

Taiwanese bookstore Eslite admits ‘survival is not easy’ in Hong Kong

Other businesses under the Eslite umbrella include art galleries, theatres, shopping arcades, restaurants and hotels.

“Eslite is not just a shared memory for Taiwanese but a cultural beacon that has enlightened Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China,” Hu wrote in a tribute on Facebook yesterday.

Wu, who began as a salesman for a dining and kitchenware firm, wanted his bookstores to be more than just a place to buy books and added cafes, music and fashion. One of the Taipei stores is open 24 hours and has been a hit with visitors from Hong Kong, the mainland and beyond since 1999 – it’s listed in travel guides and customers are encouraged to linger.

Eslite bookstore’s 24-hour model fails in Hong Kong’s tough market

“The idea came when we relocated our main bookstore in 1995. To celebrate, we opened late but we were still open at 4am – the customers didn’t want to leave,” Wu told Taiwanese media.

But it wasn’t an easy road for Wu, who shouldered heavy debts for the first 15 years of operation. Giving a talk in Hong Kong in 2014, Wu said he had persevered because he didn’t want to see bookstores disappear. Wu is survived by his wife and daughter.