Chinatown library returns, more than 60 years later

A ribbon-cutting for the Chinatown library temporary branch was held on Feb. 3 at the China Trade Center, joined by hundreds of people from different communities. (Image courtesy of Ruobing Su.)

Stephanie Fan grew up reading fairy tales in the Chinatown library at Tyler and Oak streets, which was torn down in 1955 for highway construction.

After more than six decades, a temporary Chinatown library branch is open to the community. A ribbon-cutting event for Boston Public Library (BPL) Chinatown branch took place Feb. 3 at the China Trade Center.

Fan said, “Here we are today. It is like a fairytale ending.”

Stephanie Fan, cofounder and advisor of the Friends of the Chinatown Library, spoke about visiting the original library, which was demolished in 1955. (Image courtesy of Ruobing Su.)

The library atrium was packed with local residents, elected officials and community organizers.

“This is a long time coming, a lot of advocacy and work, for this library,” said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. “Today is about adding service to the community, and bringing services back to the community that has been needed to make sure we haven’t forgotten where we started.”

Bringing back a library to Chinatown was one of Walsh’s campaign promises from 2013, when he signed a petition from Chinese Youth Initiative, a group of young people learning civic engagement through the Chinese Progressive Association.

The Chinatown library opened in 1896 and was closed in 1938. In 1950, the library reopened, but was torn down in 1955 for urban renewal. The desire to bring back the library brought together community members to form the Friends of the Chinatown Library (FOCL). Efforts to restore library services include the Chinatown Lantern reading room, which opened in 2012 at Oak Terrace and closed in 2013 after one-time grant funding ended.

A feasibility study for a Chinatown library identified the China Trade Center as a temporary site in 2017. Finding space for a permanent branch continues.

Alice Leung, one of the youth involved in the 2013 library campaign, said the reopening of the Chinatown library was monumental. “It is a sense of empowerment, hope and responsibility that has inspired many of the youth who have been working tirelessly over 20 years to persevere and continue this campaign,” Leung said.

The temporary space is located at the China Trade Center, a Boston Planning and Development Agency-owned property. This branch space is expected to open for three to five years, until a permanent site is established. The temporary site is equipped with bilingual staff, books, newspapers, and periodicals in English and Chinese. It will provide citizenship and immigration information, along with laptops for in-library use and Wi-Fi. The Chinatown branch will be an additional pick-up spot for BPL lending services. The space is 1,500 square feet, with capacity for about 150 people.

Chinatown resident Danxin Chen expressed her excitement about the Chinatown library by reading a Chinese poem. She said, “From Marty Walsh’s true promise that he made during the election, as Chinatown residents, we thank everyone, all of you who have supported us for so long.”

Lydia Lowe, FOCL member, also wrote a poem, “Renewals,” to celebrate the Chinatown library’s reopening. She wrote, “The young borrowed and renewed the elders’ dream, passing it from teen to teen and screen to screen, until the hope was in our throats, the words were on our lips again – a library for Chinatown renewed!”

The Chinatown library’s hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday through Thursday, and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., beginning Feb. 5.

The event was moderated by Boston Public Library president David Leonard. Quincy City Councilor Nina Liang, Boston City Councilor at-large Michelle Wu, District 2 Councilor Ed Flynn, former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, Boston Public School Superintendent Tommy Chang and other elected officials attended the event.

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