‘We Can Do Without Cloud Gate, but We Must Have Eslite’
“I hope that the people that come here can find inspiration for their lives at Eslite.” This quote from Eslite founder Robert Wu, who passed away in Taipei on July 20, made a lasting impression on Cloud Gate Dance Theatre founder Lin Hwai-min. In the article below, Lin explains his appreciation for Wu and his commitment to creating Taiwan’s premiere bookstore experience.
‘We Can Do Without Cloud Gate, but We Must Have Eslite’By Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 628 )
When I feel down and lost I think, ‘What are my troubles compared to those of Robert Wu?’. So I resolve to keep moving forward.
On the MRT on my way back from the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Cloud Gate founder Lin Hwai-min sent me the above words. Indeed, perhaps the most precious legacy the late Eslite Corporation founder Robert Wu left behind is the countless people inspired and enlightened by Eslite, as well as a certain enduring spirit.
Robert Wu was three years Lin Hwai-min’s junior, yet to Lin he was like a big brother he looked up to. They gave observers the impression that they were close friends, yet Lin says they only saw each other two or three times a year. The well-educated and acculturated Wu always appeared immaculately dressed in a suit and tie, prompting Lin Hwai-min to invariably tell him he should take off his jacket.
Traditional education instilled a sense of compulsion in Robert Wu, and his religious faith compelled him to be mindful of all sentient beings. What is Lin Hwai-min’s take on Robert Wu and Eslite? The following is our exclusive interview with Lin Hwai-min, excerpted and edited for clarity and brevity:
I barely remember the first time I met Robert Wu in person. I was aware of Eslite before I met him - after all, we were all youthful creatives.
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre halted operations in 1988, and Eslite was founded in 1989. Mr. Wu stated himself that when Cloud Gate suspended operations it only strengthened his resolve to found Eslite, because he believed that cultural enterprises must keep going. He had already wanted to do it, but this development (Cloud Gate’s cessation) probably sealed the deal for him.
Eslite was practically his faith. He had a real knack for making money, and was probably worth over a billion NT dollars before founding Eslite. So if his purpose was to make money, I believe there were many ways he could do that. Yet he was determined to found a classy, tasteful bookstore, and to continue even in the face of difficulty. So, to me, that is the sort of faith reminiscent of the self-effacing training a monk endures.
Born into a Tainan farming family, Robert Wu spent nearly 40 years of his life immersed in the alien world of cultural enterprises. He founded Eslite because he believed that society needs is not just more accumulation of material wealth.
He always appeared nattily dressed in a suit and tie, genteel, unpretentious, and always very courteous toward others. He never gave off any feelings of unease or anxiety. He also never discussed any business difficulties Eslite may have been experiencing, always focusing instead on any troubles I was having (running Cloud Gate).
“Without commerce, Eslite would not be able to go on; without culture, Eslite would have no desire to go on living.”
He occupied himself at all hours with books and reading, later branching into other areas not related to books. In the case of Eslite’s Xinyi branch, without those other areas of operation, there is no way he could have funded that two-story bookstore. That bookstore is astonishing, providing an environment like that for reading, with nearly every kind of book in stock. This is what he meant when he said one time in China, “Without commerce, Eslite would not be able to go on; without culture, Eslite would have no desire to go on living.” That quote really says it all.
As a cultural paragon with international acclaim, Eslite is a highly respected cultural enterprise in the Chinese-speaking world. But what I’m interested in is, what is it ultimately? The company’s full title is Eslite Living, and it has actually become a part of people’s lives.
Eslite was founded in 1989, just two years after the lifting of martial law and in the midst of an economic boom period. It was an era that saw the formation of the first middle class in any majority Chinese society; a time that saw the stock market hit 10,000 points, the emergence of a national lottery, and extravagant mobile stages on trucks with exotic dancers. But there was nothing of good taste to match the formation of the middle class and that level of economic prosperity.
Vital Post-Martial Law Force
The people toasting each other over premium Cognac are not likely going to Eslite, but their children are. Eslite is almost 30 years old. That means it has touched two or even three generations. Many friends of mine…What do they do on weekends? They deposit their children at Eslite. The children’s section of Eslite’s flagship Dunhua outlet is 50 pings (165 square meters) in size, with so many books. That refined environment is bound to rub off on them. This is the first place of its kind that Taiwanese people have ever visited. Other than five-star hotels, where else can you see such meticulous attention and taste outside of Eslite? But most people don’t set foot in luxury hotels because those are not part of their social circles.
How far-reaching is its influence? At its height, there were 50 Eslite chain outlets, from the small city of Douliu in rural Yunlin, to remote Taitung. The environment, ambience - let’s call it aesthetics, or taste for life - slowly began to take hold there, especially among young people.
The Joy of the Knowledge Explosion
The second impact of Eslite’s emergence was broadening horizons. Every sort of book appeared in that space after the lifting of martial law - everything that before could never be openly displayed or was underground. Leftist, feminist issues, and gender issues all appeared, all for you to choose from. Those were the possibilities offered by the explosion of knowledge. Naturally, society was prepared for it, with such conditions as the lifting of martial law and the economic boom, but if Eslite hadn’t come along, Taiwan might be a very different place today.
These days people often repeat the line (attributed to film director Ang Lee), “Taiwan’s most beautiful scenery is her people.” I think Eslite deserves considerable credit for its contribution to that scenery.
Because this is also something that people pick up by osmosis. All kinds of businesses are out there now, and people are more demanding of them. The “taste” component so integral to Eslite is something that was not often touched upon by popular society in the past. So it has had a tremendous influence.
Further, Eslite has always marched ahead of the times. Robert Wu had his own dreams and romantic outlook, but by engaging young people to handle planning, design, running all kinds of events, and publishing The Eslite Reader, Eslite remained in touch with young people. The architects he employed, including Kris Yao, Hsueh-yi Chien, and Ray Chen, were young and relatively unknown at the time. By using young professionals, Eslite reflected the tastes of the younger generation.
I felt so proud attending the opening of Eslite’s store in Suzhou. The sweeping grandeur of the staircase Kris Yao designed was breathtaking.
The day of the opening, all the young people from the area turned out, sporting all sorts of hairstyles and attire of all descriptions. Locals told me that even they had no idea there were so many fellow fashionable youths in the area, all of whom came out of the woodwork that day. That took me back to Taiwan in the 1990s, and the prevailing desire for new things and thirst for knowledge characteristic of that era.
Eslite has achieved magnificent success by “coercing” people into reading through packaging. Robert Wu once said something I am quite fond of: “I hope that the people that come here can find inspiration for their lives at Eslite.” This quote is fascinating to me, because everything you see and touch in the bookstore is meaningful. And sometimes when we go to a bookstore, we come with questions, with longing in our hearts, sometimes to purchase a Harry Potter book, and sometimes just to browse and hang out. Robert made reading fashionable. Honestly speaking, that kind of impact would be impossible without employing commercial operations.
Excellence through Perfectionism
Robert Wu was a perfectionist. Observing how he carried himself, approached everything…, how he behaved, how he spoke… all showed the high standards to which he held himself. Every time I saw him give a speech, it seemed like he had made 10,000 revisions to the script before taking the stage to deliver it. I wish our government officials were like that. He took everything to the highest level.
He liked to say that he hoped his bookstores allowed people to settle down, which in a physical sense means letting them sit down to read. Eslite’s Xinyi outlet is seriously impressive in the way that there are so many places to settle in. But I still prefer the Dunhua store, probably because of the early days. The way there are so many little corners to hang out in makes it an impressive sight in the wee hours of the morning.
Robert Wu’s thinking and execution were incredibly impressive to me. In light of his health condition and his Buddhist philosophy, he really approached everything as a process of self-cultivation - a personal journey of cultivation.
I can’t believe he’s gone. He happened to have just finished his final works (the underground book arcade Eslite R79) and a book (Eslite Time) just before passing away right at his desk at work - not on the road in Hong Kong or someplace like Shanghai. It’s such a shame that he had to go, but I think he lived a very full life, with his fair share of struggles and successes. He was a very positive person, and he had an impact on many people. I guess we’re all fans of Eslite in one fashion or another.
Eslite’s Impact on Legions
I’ve said before that we could do without Cloud Gate, but we must have Eslite. That is because Eslite has endured all these years, and in so many places.
Touring and performing all over the place, we have of course come into contact with thousands of people. But Cloud Gate differs from Eslite, which has always been there for us, day after day, slowly permeating our culture. Lung Yingtai described it as “still water runs deep,” and that’s really true.
So in the end, Eslite is not just a building, or a bookstore, or a place for selling things, but ultimately a place where few people remain untouched. It is a store that enlightens and inspires many people in various ways - from discovering a book to purchasing a slick Swiss Army knife, you start becoming more particular about many things, which extends to what you demand of yourself. And that’s a pretty extraordinary thing.
It’s relevant to note that the name “Eslite” is archaic French for “elite.” Robert Wu aspired not only to personal eliteness, but to spread elite tastes to the entire society. For a kid from the Tainan countryside, I find that pretty exceptional.
Founding a business is difficult in any era. But what Robert Wu impressed upon us is that you should believe - you should have faith in what you believe in, and believe in the efforts you put forward. Sometimes efforts do not equate rewards, but when you’ve put it out there, that value enriches your life so marvelously that it keeps you going.
Finally, I think Robert Wu can be described as someone who is dedicated to the welfare of all beings. From the way he was raised to his religious faith, his life served the benefit of others. Whether through reading, or the operation of his business, he was a legendary, extraordinary man.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman