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Taiwan bookseller Eslite flips page as China openings stall

New Tokyo store will mark first entry into non-Chinese-speaking market

The first Eslite Spectrum, seen here in Taiwan, was followed by additional shopping centers in Hong Kong and mainland China.

TAIPEI/TOKYO -- Taiwan's Eslite Spectrum, the most famous bookstore operator in the Chinese-speaking world, will step into the wider market for the first time with a new location in Tokyo next year as its expansion into mainland China stalls amid a broad clampdown on content.

The chain, which made news network CNN's list of the world's best bookstores in 2015, also has its eye on Kuala Lumpur, Chairwoman Mercy Wu told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Eslite has three Hong Kong branches but still only one shop on the mainland, in Suzhou, though it plans to open a Shenzhen location by the end of this year. As to whether Eslite is certain about the timing of that branch, Wu told Nikkei: "So far, yes."

Known for catering to book-lovers looking for a place to relax, Eslite hopes to open several large stores on the mainland, said Wu, the daughter of the now-deceased founder. "But this is not something we can do unilaterally in China," she said. "We are still working on opening a branch in Shanghai, but we've learned" that we cannot force the matter.

Wu did not answer directly whether censorship in China is blocking Eslite's expansion there.

"To open bookstores in mainland China, all the books need government approval," the chairwoman said. "It's different from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan."

Eslite, founded by lifestyle entrepreneur Robert Wu in 1989, opened its first overseas branch in Hong Kong's Causeway Bay in 2012 and reached the mainland in 2015 with a shop in Suzhou. The company planned to open a store in Shanghai the following year, but remains delayed due to rental issues and fire safety regulations.

China remains very attractive for Eslite, as 200,000 new books a year are published on the mainland compared with 30,000 in Taiwan and 80,000 in Japan, according to the company. Wu said she visited Xi'an in Shaanxi Province and Wuhan in Hubei Province for possible locations, and she is interested in Beijing, too.

China is notoriously sensitive about companies outside the mainland providing media content in its territory, unless they accept the stringent censorship that local firms do. Eslite reportedly was forced to remove books involving Tibetan independence and other sensitive political and religious subjects from the Hong Kong branch in order to ensure the opening in Suzhou.

Last year, Eslite reportedly refused to accept a book on its Hong Kong shelves that focused on the 20th anniversary of the former British territory's return to China. The book included interviews with democracy activists like Joshua Wong, the face of Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement in 2014. Eslite did not respond to Nikkei's request for comment on the matter.

Eslite has become a cultural landmark to Chinese-speaking bibliophiles worldwide. The branch on Dunhua South Road in downtown Taipei -- operating 24 hours a day since 1999 -- has long been considered a must-see destination for its tranquil indoor experience and unique interior design.

Eslite has ranked on CNN's best bookstore and department store lists, joining the likes of Galeries Lafayette in Paris, Harrods in London and the Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi Main Store in Tokyo. The company has built a retail group that includes books, wine wholesalers, department stores, as well as movie theaters, hotels and residential developments.

In Japan, the Taiwanese company will open a store at a redeveloped multipurpose tower in central Tokyo's Nihonbashi district in fall 2019. A joint venture formed by Eslite and Mitsui Fudosan, the Japanese developer behind the construction project, granted local bookstore chain Yurindo the license to run the store.

The store will put an emphasis on offering customers experiences, such glass and leathercraft workshops. The location is expected to attract international tourists visiting Japan.

The Tokyo opening not only represents Eslite's entry into a non-Chinese-speaking market, it also serves as Wu's grand project after being at the helm since her father died of heart failure in 2017. Eslite, which generated 4.27 billion New Taiwan dollars ($138 million) in revenue last year, is making an ambitious attempt to step outside its comfort zone.

"It is a milestone for Eslite to cross the language barrier, entering the Japanese market," Wu said. The company targets domestic customers and hopes to attract them with an assortment of literature and cultural events, she said.

The company also is researching a potential store in Kuala Lumpur, Wu said, without citing any concrete timing for an opening. "KL is a very interesting city: They speak Chinese, English and Malay," she said.

Cultural diversity encourages acceptance of Eslite's style, making it one factor as the company seeks new cities for stores. Wu acknowledged interest in other Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore or Thailand, but said "we lack resources as of yet, so we have to focus on opening the first store in Japan successfully."

Nikkei staff writers Cheng Ting-fang in Taipei and Nodoka Tomobe in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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