Pegatron Chairman T. H. Tung
Giving the World an Unending Dividend
Although he is known as a technology entrepreneur, at heart T. H. Tung is a devotee to the humanities. His support for bookstores, documentaries and the environment represent the legacy he hopes to leave to Taiwan.
Giving the World an Unending DividendBy Dennis Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 500 )
Raised in Hualian by a watchmaker father, he founded the world's biggest motherboard company at the age of 29. When he was young, he dreamed of opening a bookstore, and then later in life became Eslite Bookstore's biggest individual shareholder. He has sponsored countless artistic and cultural events and financed historical research on late presidents Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo and documentaries on the careers of Taiwanese writers.
He is Pegatron Corp. chairman T. H. Tung, a man who never goes anywhere without a book hidden in his smartphone, tablet computer or briefcase. He feels he has constantly drawn on the efforts and wisdom of previous generations, and the bookstore, historical materials and documentaries he has financed are his way of giving a gift back to Taiwan.
A graduate of National Taipei Institute of Technology (now known as National Taipei University of Technology) who founded Asustek Computer Inc. with friends at a young age, Tung may seem like a reserved high-tech entrepreneur. So what prompted him to get involved with the humanities? To find the answer, one must peer into Tung's early life.
A Childhood of Books
"I grew up in Ruisui in Hualian. In that era, there was no Facebook, no Internet. In the countryside, mere survival was a difficult thing to master," Tung recalls. Even television signals could not be received in the valley where his family lived, so when Taiwan's Little League teams made it into the World Series, he and his family would drive up the mountain, firecrackers in hand, to the home of a farming family whose television had reception to watch the games.
"There were always hundreds of people surrounding a 13-inch television in the yard, and somebody would be cooking noodles so that everybody could enjoy a late snack."
Tung recalls that at a time of material deprivation, people would treasure even the simplest things. His father the watchmaker would subscribe to magazines and newspapers from Japan, and Tung has always remembered him telling the story of Shingen Takeda, a powerful 16th-century Japanese feudal lord, during a typhoon one night by candlelight, planting the seeds of his interest in books.
"Whether it was textbooks, comic books, or historical fiction, whenever I got my hands on a book, my butt would be stuck in place," he remembers. During his youth, Tung would save money from selling ices after school or selling firecrackers during the Lunar New Year. He would use his meager earnings to order a youth literature series published by Eastern Publishing Co. through the post office or rent comic books that he would enjoy in the solitude of the shade of the playground's trees.
In junior high school, an essay by Yang Mu (a prominent Taiwanese poet born in Hualian County) featured Tung's hometown and sparked Tung's interest in the author and his love for reading poetry. He began gaining exposure to intellectual trends in literature and history and discovered "there was more to the world than just (the comic characters) Doraemon and Little Hero."
The writings of Hu Shih, a major contributor to contemporary Chinese thought and literature and later president of Academia Sinica prior to his death in 1962, strongly influenced Tung's thinking, and it carried over to when he was enrolled in National Taipei Institute of Technology.
"The first day I arrived in Taipei, I took a bus to Hu Shih's grave in Nangang. Later, I would often cut class to go read there."
During his time at the vocational school, Tung avidly read historical materials that were unauthorized by the strict censors of his day and "would have angered some grown-ups if they'd known about it." He also became editor-in-chief of the campus periodical that discussed current affairs. At one point, the publication caused a stir with an article on a controversy over Taiwanese nativist literature (which had an anti-authoritarian streak in a society that was still quite authoritarian). It was ripped out of the 20,000 magazines that had already been printed and left out of the reprinted version.
After graduating, Tung nearly decided to go to work for the Central News Agency as a reporter, but he decided instead to change career paths and join computer maker Acer Inc., and he would later launch Asustek. But the literature and history genes had already firmly taken root in his inner self.
Leaving a Legacy
In the late 1980s when he invested in Eslite Bookstore, Tung's thinking was straightforward. "I didn't want the motherboards or notebook computers or mobile phones that I specialized in to be the only things left in our society. Just as with my children – I don't want them to only read textbooks and not play sports or read comic books," he explains.
"Those who came before us expended a lot of effort to leave behind very good books and culture, bringing us considerable pleasure. Because of that, we should infect even more people with this passion."
Tung will always remember a letter written by Hu Shih that he read when he was young. The writer Chen Chih-fan had sent some cash to Hu Shih to pay back a loan, but Hu merely returned the money. In the accompanying letter, Hu stressed that he was not interested in getting any returns personally, because "the dividend will always be in the world."
That was Tung's philosophy in providing financial backing for the documentary series The Inspired Island: Series of Eminent Writers from Taiwan that immortalized the lives of six prominent Taiwanese writers – poets Yu Kuang-chung, Yang Mu, Cheng Chou-yu and Chou Meng-tieh, and novelists Wang Wen-hsing and Lin Hai-yin.
"The beautiful literary experiences that occurred on this island deserved to be recorded using something other than text, because to the younger generation, the impact of multimedia is so much more forceful and direct." He decided to partner with former Eslite executive Liao Mei-li and director Chen Tsun-hsing in first producing documentaries on the six prominent literary figures, which also served to build up an audio-visual databank and cultivate filmmaking talent.
Whether financing the preservation of historical records related to the Kuomintang and the two Chiangs or the filming of literary documentaries, Tung has stressed the importance of a collective memory.
"Beautiful cultural experiences, the changes and reflections of major eras, our collective awareness, these are all worth preserving. We cannot only remember the second half of the 101 years of the Republic of China and selectively forget the first 50 years. That would display a split personality."
As a technology entrepreneur, Tung believes everybody has the responsibility to convey and share a passion for society and the humanities. "Taiwan has many businesses that are giants in terms of economic activity but are dwarfs when it comes to cultural activities. Taiwan cannot have dwarfs everywhere. It needs local, native giants with blood ties that can help us develop cultural self-confidence."
In Tung's mind, these cultural assets are essential to consolidating a sense of social confidence.
"Standing on this side of the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan should have self-confidence. There's no need to compare numbers, or the size of buildings or populations. Instead, we should enjoy our cultural environment, for example keeping to the right on escalators, lining up when waiting for a bus, or refraining from incessantly beeping horns in traffic jams. Taiwan has undergone a transition from an era of material deprivation to today, and people can now stand tall and express their own views. It is a change worth treasuring."
In the future, Chen plans to extend the Inspired Island series with Chen and Liao and continue to enrich Taiwan's cultural ambiance by focusing on Chinese-language writers living abroad.
A Beautiful Garden for Future Generations
Aside from sharing tangible accounts of culture and history, Tung is also uninhibited in voicing his opinions on public issues.
He has joined with prominent writer Huang Chun-ming and Cloud Gate Dance Theatre founder Lin Hwai-min in opposing the construction of a new highway on Taiwan's eastern coast, from Suao to Hualian, that critics contend would cause permanent damage to the environment. Whenever Tung returns to his family home in Hualian, he spends much of his time trying to convince anybody he meets of his position.
He supports a capital gains tax on securities transactions – a move proposed by the government that has sparked a backlash from big investors – because he believes that the principle of social fairness dictates that capital gains should be taxed. But he is adamantly opposed to the further development of Taiwan's eastern seaboard, the consumption of shark fins and the overfishing of bluefin tuna.
In discussing these issues, he speaks not with the equanimity of the head of a high-tech company, but with the passion and sensitivity of the editor he was during his school days.
"When the weather is good in the winter, you can see the snow-covered peak of Mt. Cilai from the Hualian airport. That towering mountain range is like a spirit protecting the east coast and protecting Taiwan. Looking back at the emotions I felt when I read Yang Mu's poems, those emotional connections did not simply appear out of nowhere," Tung says.
"We are living and working on this land and enjoying the feast she provides. I hope that after this feast is over we won't leave a complete mess that can't be rehabilitated even after 30 or 50 years, that would lead our descendents to censure us.
"We have received countless gifts from society, and maybe we can leave some gifts to the next generation. These gifts may not elicit cries of elation, but they will prompt the recipients to slowly open the package and calmly move to a quiet spot, spending an entire afternoon immersing themselves in Taiwan's beauty."
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier