Robert Wu, founder of Taiwan's famed Eslite bookstore, dies at 66

Mr Wu was rushed to Taipei Medical University Hospital on Tuesday evening (July 18) after his heart condition flared up, but was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Mr Wu was rushed to Taipei Medical University Hospital on Tuesday evening (July 18) after his heart condition flared up, but was pronounced dead at the hospital.PHOTO: THE CHINA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Mr Robert Wu, founder of Taiwan's famed Eslite Group of bookstores which is much-loved by bibliophiles not just in Taiwan but also in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, died on Tuesday (July 18) of heart disease, the company said. He was 66.

Mr Wu, a former real-estate businessman turned bookshop entrepreneur, had long suffered from congenital cadiomegaly or an enlarged heart. He underwent major operations for his condition in 1988, 2000 and 2006.

His illness did not stop him from becoming a successful property salesman, even taking over the company where he worked when he was only 30.

In 1989, he founded Eslite - better known among Chinese-speakers as 'Cheng Pin'. By eschewing the traditional book store for a lifestyle emporium, and juxtaposing books with luxury apparel and other fine goods like wine, Mr Wu kept Eslite financially viable and turned it into an iconic destination, even as other bookshops floundered.

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Mr Wu, who was to unveil a new book on his company on Thursday (July 20), was rushed to Taipei Medical University Hospital on Tuesday evening (July 18)after his heart condition flared up, but was pronounced dead at the hospital, Taiwan media reported.

The Eslite Group, at which Mr Wu served as Chairman, announced his passing at about 9:30pm on Tuesday. It said the board would hold a special meeting to elect a new chairman.

The humble and mild-mannered Mr Wu struggled with losses for the first 15 years of running Eslite, when the company specialised in books on art and architecture. But he persevered.

"I believed that reading is an integral part of life, and I did not want to see bookstores disappear in the commercial world," he said at a talk at the City University of Hong Kong in 2014.

In 1999, he turned Eslite into a lifestyle concept store combining books, fashion goods and dining. One of the company's stores in Taipei even began operating 24 hours.

The strategy worked.

By 2015, Eslite posted NT$3.82 billion (S$172 million) in sales, up 9 per cent from a year earlier. The company also expanded into Hong Kong in 2012 and opened its first outlet in Suzhou, China, in 2015.