29 February 2020
Eslite's existing HK flagship store at Hysan Place in Causeway Bay. The Taiwan bookstore chain has announced plans to open a new mega outlet in Taikoo Shing early next year. Photo: HKEJ
Eslite's existing HK flagship store at Hysan Place in Causeway Bay. The Taiwan bookstore chain has announced plans to open a new mega outlet in Taikoo Shing early next year. Photo: HKEJ

As Eslite expands, will it continue to uphold free speech?

After a string of bad news involving several store chains, Hong Kong’s book lovers and free speech advocates finally have something to cheer about.

Taiwan-based bookstore group Eslite is preparing to open a new mega outlet in the city, going against the recent trend of shop closures brought about by unaffordable rents and falling sales.

The fresh initiative by the independent bookstore chain is welcome tidings for the public, which has become increasingly concerned in recent times about the dominant position of the pro-Beijing Sino United Publishing Group in the local book retailing industry.

Increased competition will ensure that vested interests will find it more difficult to filter out politically sensitive titles in bookstores and control the flow of information.

That will be good for the cause of democracy and free speech, which has come under growing threat in Hong Kong as Beijing sought to tighten its grip on local society. 

Three years after opening its first Hong Kong store in Causeway Bay, Eslite Spectrum — the parent company of Eslite Bookstore — announced this week that it will open its second store in the city in early 2016.

The new megastore, to be located in the CityPlaza mall in Taikoo Shing, will be a two-storey facility spread over an area of 49,000 square feet. It will be bigger than Eslite’s existing Hysan Place outlet which covers 41,000 square feet. 

The new investment committed by Eslite is good news for Hong Kong’s book retail industry following a spate of negative news this year, which included the exit of Australia’s Dymocks Bookstore from the city and the closure of Singapore-based Page One of its 18-year old Times Square store.

The foreign bookstore chains have blamed skyrocketing rental expenses for their decision to scale down the operations.

Hong Kong’s book retail market has long been split into two broad groups.

One is controlled by Beijing-backed Sino United Publishing Group, which owns around 50 bookstores in Hong Kong under the Chung Hwa, Joint Publishing, Commercial Press Hong Kong and Bloomsbury brands. With financial support from Beijing, Sino United has been expanding its retail network in key shopping malls and districts such as Tsim Sha Tsui.

The second group in Hong Kong is composed of local and foreign bookstores. The camp includes outlets such as Cosmos Book Store, Popular Book Store and Eslite, as well as many small-scale book stores in the old buildings of Mong Kok and Causeway Bay.

China’s Communist Party has long considered book publishing as an ideological tool to influence people’s thinking and mindset, and Hong Kong has also been brought under the net.

That is the reason why Sino United Publishing has been given huge financial power to operate the city’s largest book chains and publishing house. The hidden agenda is to promote the image of the Communist Party rule, through soft power.

Take the Joint Publishing Book Store in the Central district, for example. If someone visited the store recently, he would have found the shelf at the entrance stacked with books on topics such as President Xi Jinping’s European trip, China’s rise as a world power, and mainland history.

In independent bookstores, on the other hand, the best-selling titles recently have all been those related to the pro-democracy Umbrella movement. 

Pro-Beijing chain stores haven’t halted sales of books on the Umbrella Movement completely, but they try to place such titles in less prominent positions in the stores. And often, the titles will be put next to books that portray the Occupy campaign in a negative light.

There is no doubt that Beijing wants to use subtle means to try to influence Hong Kong people’s reading habits, given the recent tensions caused by China’s failure to deliver on promised free elections.

Authorities will make fresh efforts to shape public opinion via books and other media channels in a bid to get locals to see Beijing’s point of view. But such efforts may only work with the elderly and not the younger generation, which now gets most of its information from the Internet.

Reduced book-reading habits, meanwhile, will also pose a challenge to retail chains such as Eslite, as it is happening in many parts of the developed world.

It remains to be seen how far Eslite can go, given the tough market environment. High rental and operating costs — including electricity and labor costs — has already led to shortened business hours at its Causeway Bay store.

The bookstore also changed its product offerings in the past two years by focusing on more high-margin products and services such as beverages and food, stationery and bags, rather than merely selling books. 

Meanwhile, some observers are also wondering if Eslite will make some compromises as it seeks to expand in the mainland market. The company has announced that it will open outlets in Suzhou and Shanghai in the second quarter this year.

To gain favor with mainland authorities, will the Taiwan chain hold back on some books deemed critical of China? This is the question that has sprung up in people’s minds. Some readers pointed out earlier that Eslite had removed books regarding Tibet from its Hong Kong and Taiwan outlets.

While it remains to be seen how things will turn out, publishing industry experts say it will benefit Eslite in the long run if it upholds its core value as an independent bookstore chain, rather than try to please mainland authorities in exchange for bigger market opportunities in China.

Book publisher Pang Chi-ming says the Taiwan brand should remain committed to freedom of expression.

“As a cultural leader, you cannot shy away from such responsibilities,” he said.

It will be good if Eslite bears that in mind.

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EJ Insight writer