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The Chinese have a saying that out of chaos comes opportunity, which might explain why Xia Ruifang and three of his friends decided to set up a small printing company in Shanghai at a time when China was being torn apart by internal strife and external aggression.
It was a time when reforms, coups, revolutions and aggression from foreign forces were all part of China's day-to-day business.
But that didn't stop 26-year-old Xia Ruifang and his friends. In 1897 they started cranking out invoices, receipts, business records and other ad hoc printing jobs for businesses in Shanghai on his hand printing press, and in doing so founded The Commercial Press.
"That is where the name 'Commercial Press' comes from," said Chan Man-hung, managing director & chief editor, The Commercial Press (H.K.) Ltd.
Around the turn of the century, Mr Xia received financial backing from several elite scholars -- Zhang Yuanji, Cai Yuanpei and Gao Mengdan. Their investment and connections paved the way for Commercial Press to enter into the book publishing business, he explained.
Things couldn't have been going better for Mr Xia, and in 1914 he tried to buy back Commercial Press's shares from a Japanese company that had invested in the firm some years earlier.
But on January 10, the same year, he was murdered. Rumours that the Japanese company was behind the assassination were rife, but could never be proven and no one was ever arrested for his murder. Yin Youmo, Zhang Yuanji and Wang Yunwu then took over the reins of the company.
A series of fatal explosions set off by Japanese troops brought operations to a halt in 1932. Commercial Press managed to resume limited operations following six months of consolidations but didn't get the business back on track until after the surrender of the Japanese army at the end of World War II.
At the turn of the 20th century, demand for new books in China hit fever-pitch. The 'Self-Strengthening Movement,' Westernisation and the explosion of Chinese citizens enrolling in new schools teaching both Western and Chinese curricula meant demand for books outstripped supply. Commercial Press now had a window of opportunity to play a central role in helping educate the masses and substantially expand its publishing empire.
Commercial Press soon branched out and before long it was running schools and libraries, in addition to printing textbooks.
"It's fair to say that Commercial Press made significant contributions to shaping the culture of modern Chinese history," Mr Chan said.
Changing with the times
Commercial Press opened its Hong Kong branch in 1914 on Shu Kuk Street in North Point. The office has functioned as its headquarters since 1949.
Mr Chan said that, as a publisher, Commercial Press must have a keen nose for trends and a sharp understanding of current affairs to make sure it is able to give people what they want.
"The Book of Songs says, 'Though Zhou was an old country, the divine mandate it bore was new.' This fits our philosophy. Innovation has always been the essence of success in the publishing business. Without it, the business would be doomed to failure," he said.
Commercial Press was the first to publish classic ancient Chinese texts and dictionaries, which other publishers subsequently followed, Mr Chan said.
But that doesn't mean everything has been plain sailing for the company. Encroachments on the local printing industry by Japanese printers in the 1970s also threatened the livelihood of the company. To compete, the company expanded its outlets and started publishing new titles. Today, it runs 13 stores in Hong Kong, and publishes 1,500 different titles annually, with 60 per cent of its books being in Chinese and the remainder in English and other languages.
Meeting the challenges
"In the past, it was easy to gauge the risk of launching a new book. All you needed was global vision and insight. But with the IT revolution, it is now very hard to precisely assess what will succeed and what will fail. We can't even figure out where our competitors will come from next with the Internet," Mr Chan said.
In 1995, Commercial Press drafted a 10-year business plan to capitalise on technological developments in the publishing and business world. During the first five-year period, the company has invested heavily in technology to fully computerise its operations and to automate distribution and warehousing.
"Now we are in the second phase. Everything is geared up to push the business forward," Mr Chan said.
Commercial Press (HK) Cyberbooks Limited (CP1897.com), opened its virtual doors in 1999, and provides 'bricks and clicks' services to customers and access to the largest selection of Chinese titles in Hong Kong. It plans to launch the service in the Mainland early next year, he added.
Despite globalisation, numerous e-publishers and e-book merchants, Mr Chan said Commercial Press is joining the IT revolution and is poised to also make a name for itself in the electronic publishing and e-commerce world.
"Risks and opportunities walk hand in hand," he said.
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