Being familiar with the chain bookstore culture in both Singapore and Australia, getting to understand Taiwan’s independent bookstore culture was certainly an eye-opening experience for me. Although I had a small inkling of what the bookstore culture was like in Taiwan and the meaning of books to the Taiwanese people, chatting with renowned Taiwanese director Hou Chi-Jan about his short visual series Poetries From The Bookstores certainly gave me a deeper understanding of how books have a meaning that is deeply embedded in Taiwanese culture.
Produced by Dreamland Culture and Creative, the Poetries From The Bookstores series has been three years in the making, requiring much field study on their part as they scoured almost every independent bookstore in Taiwan.
One thing that fascinated me and gives off strong signals about the differences in book appreciation within Taiwan and in other countries is the way people still see reading as a way to pass the time, with bookshops always filled with people poring over books for hours on end. Hou started off by giving me a quick rundown of how this came to be, ironically despite Taiwan’s idiosyncratic fascination with new media and technology:
“In the last twenty years, because of the internet and computers, people have gone from reading information off paper to reading off digital screens. This kind of change was actually quite big. I think books are a medium, an artifact of human civilisation that are currently disappearing. I think Taiwan has so many independent bookstores, because in one way it is a reflection of Taiwanese sentimentality, where people have been reading since they were young, and think they can’t replace books with digital media. Books to them are memories, to them it is a part of life, and they hope that through passing on books or selling books they can pass on this sentiment to others. I think this is a kind of nostalgia or an expression of a kind of passion. Now the other reason for books’ importance in Taiwan is because of Taiwan’s freedom of speech. Taiwan has the space to allow people to have their own ideas, their own perspectives or they don’t have to go in the same direction as many others in society. So many who open bookstores are actually realizing their own ideas about life.”
But just like everywhere else in the world, bookstores are consolidating and conforming, with chains opening up and independents losing business. Hou tells us however, that the aim behind the short series, which was filmed in collaboration with a Taiwanese drama called Lovestore At The Corner, is to engage audiences by reaching them on platforms most familiar to them in order to raise awareness of the deeper meaning behind some of Taiwan’s independent bookstores.
“These videos are provided for free online for everyone to watch. It is a way of viewing which is very easily accessible. And they are all very short, from between 3-5 minutes per episode. So in this medium of media, people can watch one or two episodes of it on the subway. So it is a very easily accessible way of expression which may attract younger people. So actually we hope to use this method to allow more younger people who are always on their phones to know about these bookstores. Once they watch it perhaps they will find these bookstores meaningful and try to go to these bookstores and have a look. This is one method to motivate more people to go to these bookstores.”
Using his eye for visual beauty to create stunning, cinematographic and meaningful shorts introducing each of the forty bookstores in a unique and creative way, Hou explained to me the creative process in shaping each and every episode of the mini series:
“When we filmed this documentary we did so with the bookstore owner’s story as the key theme. Because these small independent bookstores, all the designs and books chosen come back to the bookstore owner’s decision. This is different from chain bookstores which may all look the same, but with these independent bookstores it reflects the owner’s personality. So during the process of filming, we spent a lot of time talking with the bookstore owners as these owners all had their own personalities and they all had their own ideas towards their bookstores. Like if they didn’t want idols’ fans to come to their bookstore, or how they feel their bookstore should be shot, or perhaps they don’t want to appear in the documentary… So every episode of this documentary wont be quite the same as I’ll talk to the bookstore owner and find out what they like or don’t like, and add my own ideas, causing them to all be different.”
And Hou indeed had many interesting anecdotes to share with me about these independent bookstores and the story behind their existence. There were two in particular which were especially meaningful; the story of Yilan’s Books & Vegetable Nook, especially when reiterated by director Hou, who is truly a masterful storyteller, both in film and in person.
Yilan’s “小間書菜 Books & Vegetable Nook”
“There is a bookstore in Yilan which is in the middle of a field, the bookstore owners are farmers and at their books you can use your second hand books to exchange vegetables. This is a very meaningful, they use the space of bookstores to express their attitude towards life. So this Yilan bookstore believes that every grain of rice, every drop of water, every vegetable is important. Because they have their own children, so they feel that a lot of products are not sustainable or not safe, so they feel that they need to protect what their children are eating and so they started the farm. And because they like books, they also decided to open their own bookstore. So actually a lot of bookstores are like this, they are not just about selling books, but also about spreading their own perspectives and ideas.”
Taichung’s “魚麗人文主題書店 Yuli Text Themed Bookstore”
“There is another one in Taichung called Yuli Text Themed Bookstore, it is a restaurant and bookstore fusion, they like to look at recipes and analyse them making food. They have several life stories to tell, some of them have been victims of domestic abuse, others have had a rather sad past. So they have come together, wanting to help people in need. When I went to film them they were doing something which is in Taiwan there is one person who was embroiled in a robbery and arrested, and was sentenced to death by the court. But from a lot of the evidence, it seems that he was being framed so a lot of human rights activists focused on him. So the owners at “Yuli Text Themed Bookstore” would make him a lunchbox every month and visit him regularly…And this year, that case against the convict was finally overturned… and he was set free. So I think these bookstores in Taiwan are really awesome, they really do care about society and are willing to help those in need; like the bookstore in Taichung, in his past he needed help of a similar sort so now he wants to help others. This kind of relationship between people, or like with Yilan, the relationship between people and the earth, they use the bookstore to express and spread this message.”
But when quizzed about his plans for the upcoming new season of Poetries From The Bookstores and whether there would be any new themes emerging around the episodes, Director Hou had a few new ideas in mind:
“In the second series I had another idea which was to film bookstores that looked more average and old. Because in Taiwan there are a lot of these types of bookstores which are opened near to schools and sell things like toys, stationary, school books. Now, these types of bookstores have been opened for decades and accompanied the students and neighbours in growing up. They are unlike these new types of bookstores which are designed very nicely in that they may not have as much space, it might be crowded in there but they have a very deep relationship with the people who visit the bookstore…You can feel how these bookstores are a part of its customers lives from the interactions between the bookstore and the people who visit it. They might come and have a chat after buying vegetables nearby, or it might be someone who has grown up in this area as a primary school student and now sends their children to the same primary school and visits the bookstore.”
Indeed, after watching a couple of episode within the first series, I myself was extremely motivated to check out the bookstores featured within each of the forty episodes! But of course, I’m not the only one. Director Hou recounts an experience which to him demonstrated the cross-cultural appeal of the Poetries From The Bookstores series, re-affirming his efforts in spreading the message about preserving the heritage of Taiwan’s bookstores.
“Just like when we were filming at another bookstore in Yilan bookstore (Voyage Bookstore), we ran into a girl who rode a bicycle to the bookstore and went to talk to the bookstore owner. After talking, while we were packing away our stuff the bookstore owner ran over and asked “ would you like to say hi to the girl? she is a exchange student from China. She came to Taiwan because of your bookstore series. The reason she came to Taiwan is so she can follow your series and go to each of the bookstores…And afterwards I went onto the girl’s Wechat and found that she has actually already written about many of the bookstores and said that she came to Taiwan because of Poetries From The Bookstores…This allowed me to realise that this series actually has had a lot of influence overseas. And when she saw me she said she felt more happy than if she met Eason Chan! (Laughs). We were really just about to pack up and leave I really didn’t think we would meet her, it was a truly unexpected meeting.”
So, perhaps we can now start calling Director Hou the ‘Eason Chan’ of Taiwan’s film industry? But all jokes aside, Poetries From The Bookstores is certainly a work that makes modifications to the conventional visual medium in a way that inspires audiences no matter where they are in the world. An ode to the subtle uniqueness of Taiwan’s culture, this is certainly a series that will bring you on a journey towards heightened awareness to the preciousness of books to an increasingly digitised world.
Photos provided by Dreamland Culture & Creative Co.