Images of people flocking to the Taiuan-e-tiam (台灣e店) bookstore to attend independent Taipei mayor hopeful Ko Wen-je’s (柯文哲) book launch on Nov. 17 last year recalled the store’s heyday, when it built a reputation as the home of the nation’s most Taiwan-themed books.
Despite being located in an alley near National Taiwan University that is flanked by dozens of bookshops, Taiuan-e-tiam, which literally means “the store of Taiwan” in Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese), has stood out from its competitors because of its longstanding insistence that only books that tell the stories of the country are worth selling.
Although the name of the bookstore is no stranger to most people well-versed in Taiwanese history or infatuated with the nation’s culture, one cannot say the same for its 72-year-old owner, Wu Cheng-san (吳成三).
“My main source of happiness and sense of achievement is seeing readers being able to find what they have been searching for in Taiuan-e-tiam and bring them home,” Wu said, with passion in his eyes.
Hailing from Greater Tainan, Wu said the bookshop has helped him find a new purpose in life after his insistence on introducing Hoklo dictionaries and books featuring Taiwan’s Aborigines and ecology brought him close to a number of like-minded people.
In an effort to bring his store closer to the current social movements, Wu also puts anti-nuclear flags and school bags depicting the campaign against forced government land seizures on the shelves.
Wu said his efforts to create an entirely Taiwanese bookstore are motivated by his belief that “the power of learning is enormous.”
“The five years I spent on pursuing a doctoral degree in Columbia University in 1969 liberalized my mind completely. At that time, my school was not only the heart of an anti-Vietnam War campaign in the eastern US, it also spoke out against [former US president] Richard Nixon’s plan to launch attacks on Laos,” Wu said.
However, it was an incident in which a student warned Wu against reading US writer George Kerr’s Formosa Betrayed on campus that made him see how Taiwan had run counter to global values and how desperately it needed to rethink its position.
Published in 1965, Formosa Betrayed centers on Kerr’s first-hand observations of the various events occurred in Taiwan before and after the 228 Incident in 1947, when he was serving as a US foreign officer in Taipei.
The 228 Incident refers to the crackdown launched by the then-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime against civilian demonstrations in 1947, following an incident in Taipei on Feb. 27 of that year.
Martial law was imposed later that year and not lifted until 1987. Tens of thousands of people were killed during that era, which became known as the White Terror era, and an estimated 140,000 to 200,000 were imprisoned.
Looking back, Wu said there was a “peculiar phenomenon” during the 1990s, in which a mobile stall vendor was seen selling banned books featuring democratic movements every time a new social movement was launched.
“I thought to myself what a pity it would be if there was no one bringing these books together in one place, so I started looking for them in various Aboriginal tribes and bookstores across the country,” Wu said.
During the search, Wu was frustrated to find that the nation’s Aboriginal cultures had long been disregarded by the public and that books about Taiwan were too scattered to be useful for cultural researchers.