Zyl racontée par...
Francoise Zylberberg lives on in the hearts of Francophones in Taiwan (Nancy T. Lu)

What will the Taipei International Book Exhibition (TIBE) be like without Francoise Zylberberg? And what will the Librairie Le Pigeonnier du Quercy or even the French reading festival called “Lire en Fete” in Taipei be like without Zyl?

Poor health in recent years – a subject she was most discreet about – did not keep her – a former mentor to countless French language students in Taiwan – from getting fully involved even if she had to do it by remote control over long periods.

Back in 1969, Zyl was put in charge of the French language classes for the “boat people” escaping the anti-Chinese persecution in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos at Jussieu. The free language courses, which applied the latest pedagogical methods in affiliation with the Paris University 7, had proven a success with thousands of immigrants benefitting from the French language education program.  

About years later, having picked up a little Cantonese, Zyl was appointed to teach French language beginners at the Hong Kong University. She almost got this assignment cancelled by the French cultural attaché who did not like her success at Jussieu. And so Zyl arrived in Taipei instead in 1979 with Jacques Picoux, her colleague at Jussieu. They developed together the French language education program at the National Taiwan University, even producing the extremely successful television program called “Salut les Copains” with Maria Chiu, a former Taiwanese teacher at Paris University 7, four times a week. 

Zyl and her French colleague at NTU were paid by the National Taiwan University for their work on the TV program. Corresponding teaching manuals were developed. Exercises and tests were sent in for correction. French students were recruited to correct them.

The first French cultural attached sent to Taipei in 1980 gave the TV series full support and encouragement, paving the way for successors at the post to promote and realize a strong French cultural presence in Taiwan.

The French language television program aroused enormous interest in France. As a result, Zyl began to develop a series of postcards to nurture such enthusiasm. This went on for a while and eventually gave birth to Librairie Le Pigeonnier du Quercy. She reproduced old maps of Taiwan, turning them into a calendar at one time. She likewise established links with French institutions like the Louvre, bringing in souvenir shop items and reinforcing the image of her homeland as a leader in the appreciation of art and culture.

The French bookstore managed by Zyl did not just import French titles but also went into publication. Cartoonist Golo was invited to visit Taipei and create the illustrated bilingual book filled with his observations titled “Made in Taiwan.” Zyl even took Golo to the Tamkang University to meet the students in the French language department.

The “Lire en Fete” – an annual festival promoting French reading – got launched at Le Pigeonnier complete with French cheese and wine. The project kept growing. French language authors even lent their distinguished presence to the event. Francophones living, studying and working in Taipei, were encouraged to gather on weekends at the bookstore. Zyl would sometimes bring out her antique music box and crank out notes to capture French ambience on the spot.

France became the main country featured at the Taipei International Book Exhibition (TIBE) with Zyl’s major involvement at least twice over the years. At the last TIBE, she coordinated the display of the reproductions of original manuscripts of French writers, philosophers and even a composer.

Zyl ran the only French bookstore, a chic one, near the Itung Park in Taipei, serving the local academe and catering to needs in French pedagogy. She imported a whole range of titles on French art and culture.

French publishing houses turned to her for assistance in connecting with Taiwanese counterparts. She related very easily to people in Taiwan for she spoke fluent Chinese. At the last major book fair in Paris shortly before her return to Taipei in late July, Zyl received a special award from the French government.

One of her last projects was to oversee the opening of Taiwanese fashion designer Sophie Hong’s fashion boutique at the Palais Royal in Paris. Zyl, always dressed in the clothes of Sophie Hong, did not just promote the art of France but also talent from Taiwan. She went a long way in promoting French-Taiwanese relations.

Zyl paid a big price for being a heavy smoker over the years. Her constant physical absence in Taipei in the last two years was evident. Till the end, she was a workaholic. She at only 64 finally closed the last chapter of her meaningful life, shocking many and leaving them to mourn the great loss. She will be deeply missed.

(This article first appeared in the blog, LIVING AND LOVING ART)