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Man Behind Literary Legends
Jin Yong (Louis Cha), the author of well-loved kung fu sagas, is a household name in the Chinese-speaking world. But ironically, the man who made Jin and other literary legends popular in Taiwan remains unknown and unsung. Yet Vista Publishing owner Shen Deng'en is one of Taiwan's most influential publishers, with an eye that's equally sharp when it comes to finding writers and seeking business opportunities, writes Zhao Feifei.

The works of novelist Jin Yong (Louis Cha), Li Ao and Lin Xingzhi are absolutely de rigeur for novel buffs in Taiwan. One man was responsible: Shen Deng'en, whose unerring eye told him that these books were going to be big.

Basking in the sunlight of a springtime afternoon in Shanghai, Shen, 57, exclaims over the popularity of an essay collection by noted Hong Kong economics analyst Lin Xingzhi on his recent visit in town.

"They say that there is a great deal of similarity between Taipei and Shanghai, at least in terms of what they read," Shen says.

His thin thought-worn features and sunken, haggard cheeks speak of a man who has burned night oil too often. He doesn't deny it, admitting that he reads into wee hours every night, devouring books -- he is Taiwan's top private book collector, with 80,000 books -- and scores of newspapers and clipping topics of interest, and still rises early each morning.

And he has the dark circles under his eyes to prove it. He looks tired, frail -- like a man who continually burns the candle at both ends. There is nothing frail about Shen's book-picking abilities, however. Almost every book he has backed has not only succeeded, but turned an enormous profit as well.

His secret is no secret: He knows his business and he's not afraid to take a gamble.

He took a gamble on movie director Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, written by Wang Dulu, a kung fu writer from Beijing who died in 1977. Just one month before the Academy Awards that won Lee an Oscar, Shen bought the rights to the novel for US$300,000 from Wang's widow.

"I just had a hunch that he would win. If he won, I won," he says. "Wang's widow asked for just US$200,000. I paid US$300,000, really for my conscience, because I knew in my bones that the rights were worth far more than that." As it turned out, Shen was absolutely right. Once Lee had won his Oscar, Shen sold the right to make a computer game using characters in the novel for US$600,000.

The moral, he says, is that in order to be a good publisher, you not only need to keep abreast of everything going on around the world, to get on the pulse of the planet. You've got to be ahead of the pack,'' he says.

When Shen established Vista Publishing Co. in 1974 -- one of Taiwan's second-generation publishing houses -- Jin Yong was publishing his works under different names, and books, if not the author, were hits in Hong Kong.

Shen had to have them. "When I first read his novels, filled with the chivalrous and tender kung fu fighters-cum-knights errant, I couldn't get them out of my mind. I made up my mind to publish his works one way or another in Taiwan," he says.

Today, he continues to fan the flame by actively promoting "Jinology" research on Jin's works by academics and fans.

His hard business sense occasionally yields to a love of a certain book, even at the risk of losing money. His collections of the works of Nobel Prize Winners, for example, met with a cold response from the market.

It was business sense that brought Shen to the Chinese mainland. The small island province of Taiwan fairly bristles with more than 5,000 publishing houses, each of which is struggling to find their niche -- it's a case of sink or swim.

Like many other Taiwan publishers, Shen feels that the answer is on the Chinese mainland. Present restrictions mean that his participation is limited to collaborations with local publishers, which he does, selling the mainland publishing rights to some mainland publishers.

"I really love coming here," he enthuses. "It's such a fertile and virgin market. Take the bookstores, for example. Most bookstores here are inadequately managed. Books are arranged poorly, just dumped together without any creative input. No offense here, but we can do far better."

As for the mainland's writers, Shen is full of praise for Mo Yan, the most critically acclaimed writer of his generation, whose works include Red Sorghum and Big Breasts and Wide Hips.

"He has been hailed as 'William Faulkner of China,' and a magic realist in the style of Gabriel Garcia Marquez," Shen remarks. "His novels are an extraordinary blend of fantasy, lyrical descriptions of the Chinese countryside, satirical commentary on bureaucracy, black humor, and touches of the supernatural. There are a lot more promising young writers here. I'm looking forward to working with them."

(Eastday.com March 13, 2003)

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