The New Kid in Chinatown

After decades of activism, the Chinatown Library finally has a place to call its own.

As Boston Mayor Marty J. Walsh shuffles down the stairs on Feb. 3, 2018, pausing every other step or so in order to shake someone’s hand, a Chinese woman in a bright pink fleece pushes past me. She squints at her phone screen for a moment before commencing a rapid-fire sequence of picture-taking—a stop motion animation of Mayor Marty Walsh Descending a Staircase. I watch as she scrolls through the last dozen pictures on her phone of Mayor Walsh’s chin and right elbow. She smiles in satisfaction before pushing back into the crowd.

For more than 60 years, Chinatown has lacked a public library. The neighborhood’s Tyler Street library building was torn down in 1956. Ever since, the Chinatown branch of the 24-branch Boston Public Library system (proudly touted as having “pioneered public library service in America”) has never made a permanent return. According to David Leonard, the president of Boston Public Library, there have been bookmobiles, pop-up libraries, and reading rooms in the past. However, there has never been an opening like this: the lower level of the China Trade Center, “Boston Public Library — Free to All” marked on the walls and windows, is overflowing with balloons, cameras, young women playing dulcimers, and people of all ages and ethnicities in colored puffers.

Chinatown Librarian
A librarian works at the circulation desk of the newly opened Boston Public Library Chinatown.

“It’s so great to see so many people. It’s very clear that we need a bigger library,” jokes long-term Chinatown Library activist Stephanie Fan during her speech at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“Take notes!” someone yells from the crowd.

After decades of activism, the Chinatown Library finally has a place to call its own. Starting Feb. 5, 2018, the Boston Public Library will be offering free Wi-Fi, laptops for use on-site, books and DVDs in English and Chinese, and a bilingual staff. But in this moment, during the grand opening of the Chinatown Boston Public Library, the focus is on the celebration.

“This is government at work doing really good things with the community, so I’m just really thrilled,” Leonard says.

When Mayor Walsh takes the podium during the ribbon-cutting ceremony, though, it becomes abundantly clear that this grand opening could not have been possible without decades of work from the community. This consisted of years of frustration, patience, and collaboration with individuals old and young as well as organizations big and small. In establishing the long-awaited Chinatown Library, Mayor Walsh made good on a promise from his mayoral race.

Library Ribbon Cutting
Mayor Marty Walsh cuts the ribbon at the new Chinatown Boston Public Library.

“People fighting for the last 25 years shows that it was important to the community, so it was important to me that we brought the service back,” Walsh tells FM.

Still, his speech is a never ending list of personalized Thank You’s. He especially thanks “the young people” during his speech, who are all “about two feet taller than they were when I first met them.” As volunteers help an elderly activist off stage, it is clear that the establishment of the Chinatown Library has been a community effort that has spanned generations.

Even after immense collaborative effort, this grand opening is still not for the permanent library. In the past year, the city has been conducting program study for a “longer term permanent solution.”

“Over the coming months, we’ll be taking the conversation to the next step,” Leonard says.

However, the community remains determined and optimistic for the future of the Chinatown Library.

“Boston has so many communities and I think a lot of people can understand how hard it can be for any particular community to get its needs met, because there is just so much constituency,” says Jeff Lao, member of the Chinese Youth Initiative. “It’s been a while, and it should’ve been way sooner, and we still have a lot of challenges, especially with housing and working issues… but more than a library, I think [this opening] is really a testament that when community members really want something, they can get it.”

— Magazine writer Heidi Lai can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @hiheidz.