IDC: Midterm Part III
Chinatown’s Chatham Square Library
The Chatham Square Library is located on 33 East Broadway between Catherine
Street and Market Street. It is actually snuggly fit between an Oriental Stationery shop
and a food shop and restaurant. This library first opened in 1903 and was designed by an
architectural firm known as McKim, Mead, and White (2). This monumental structure is
a four story building consisting of: a basement, home to an archive about the Chinese
heritage, a ground floor, composed of a variety of literature and technology for young
adults and adults, a second floor, overflowing with colorful picture books and graphic
novels for young children, and the third floor, which is open space used for events and
programs for the community. The library has a pillared façade that makes it stand out
from the rest of the buildings on this block.
The large majority of the people entering and exiting the building are Chinese.
The Chatham Square Library is known to be one of the busiest libraries in Chinatown.
This library serves a wide range of ages, from young pre-kindergarten children to the
white-haired elderly. Because it caters to such a large assortment of people, many events
are held in the third floor open space. A majority of the events focus on the culture of
China, such as a Chinese Film Series event, “Music from China”, and “The Story of the
Monkey King” (1). Other events include teaching English as a second language, magic
shows, tutoring, story time and so forth. It seems as if the community, no matter what age
is, has been brought together in this one building (4). funded
One famous quote that became well known and commonly used was, “Coming to
America is like seeking the golden mountain.” This refers to the opportunities that the
Chinese immigrants saw in this new land. Coming to America gave them a chance to
prosper and become rich. A film called Golden Mountain on Mott Street, which was
made about this immigration period, is often shown in the library. The film portrays the
hardships in the 1960s, as Chinese immigrants were having difficulty adjusting to a new
life in New York (3). At the same time, they as they continued to maintain connections
with their families, the library became a place of aid and comfort.
One example of unity with this Chinatown community was the plan to raise
money to keep the Chatham Square Library open on Saturdays. The community united as
one and raised $18,000 to keep the library open for an extra day. According to Louise
Lareau, a current children’s librarian we interviewed, Saturday is the library’s busiest
day. She told us that this location was a “destination branch”, which meant that people
from all over the tri-state come to borrow and return library materials. She acknowledges
this feat could not be done without the assistance of the enormous heritage collection in
the basement (5). The heritage collection consists of newspapers from different towns in
China, movies made by famous Chinese directors from the beginning of the film industry
to now, books written by notable Chinese philosophers and authors. The collection does
not gear itself to a specific age group or town; it is open to children, with videos about
fables to the elderly, who want to hear about their hometowns (5).
Another example of unity is the sense of culture and tradition that the Chinese
continue to maintain despite being away from their hometown. As we looked for files
about the Chatham Library, we noticed that a majority of newspaper clippings were from
different areas of China. Not only were there local newspapers, there were also postcards,
pamphlets, and magazines sent from different organizations in China, who wanted their
friends and families to find them and stay updated with their news. The library also holds
events once in a whole, where a prominent figure in Chinatown comes to visit and talks
to everyone for a bit. In doing so, the library keeps all its users connected with the
constant changing world outside.
There was a Chinatown Project teaching Chinese heritage in 1973, where many
students were provided with information about their Asian American heritage at this
library. The goal was to raise awareness of Asian American youth’s own identity. A
variety of photos, films, songs, and storytelling were offered to teach these students.
Many community members volunteered at this event to promote Asian interest and
awareness (6). One such volunteer was Jeff Jung Ho, who told a Chinese fairytale about
Pan-Ku, a man who had powers to make rain and mountains. Jeanie Chin was another
volunteer who taught about kites – their meaning and how to make them. Susan Yung
was an assistant who shared her sewing talent – teaching the art of crocheting. The
program invited anyone who was interested in sharing their traditions, talents, and
knowledge with children for two hours a Saturday (6).
In our research, we also found that in 1985, there was a problem with the
classification of books at the library. Many people complained about the difficulty of
locating Chinese characters since the reference books were translated to English and did
not follow the Pin Yin system. Chinese characters are made up of strokes and each
character has its own meaning and sound. Because the characters could not be
phonetically translated into a simpler Chinese form, the system of Pin Yin was created
(11). This system translated the characters into the current Roman alphabet. This way, it
was easier to order books and other material – making it more accessible to the public.
The Chinese community wanted improvements in their library and succeeded by
demanding more hours, which would give them more time to visit and take advantage of
the great resources available. In addition repairs were made to the library in April 1985.
The building was becoming too old and possibly hazardous to all those who worked and
visited this branch. Through community efforts, the Chatham Square Library was granted
permission to remodel by the New York Public Library system. Those who needed access
to the Chatham Square library were directed to the Seward Park Library, farther down
From our research about the Chatham Square Library, it is obvious that a sense of
community is extremely strong. The Chinese set up goals and work together to
accomplish them in a fashion that not only succeeds, but also teaches the youth, the
future of America, about the past traditions and culture.