How Chinatown’s public library is adapting to its senior population, along with others around the country

By Michael Lee
Medill Reports

On the second floor of the Chicago Public Library Chinatown branch, a group of older men huddled around tables in a study room playing Chinese chess, a strategy board game often played in China.

Wearing beanies, ball caps and winter coats, they slid the circular, wooden pieces around the board consisting of two rectangular four-by-eight grids. When the game ended, they swiftly realigned the pieces and started again.

Every afternoon for four hours, older, Chinese men gather at the library to play and watch others play Chinese chess — focused but chatting.

Since opening in 2015, Chinatown’s library has become a hub for seniors in the community during the day to socialize, play board games and participate in other activities. Like other public libraries nationwide, it is adapting to the changing needs of their residents in addition to its traditional role as a resource for books, periodicals and DVDs.

“There’s no other place for [seniors] to go in Chinatown, no other entertainment or movie theaters or some other cultural centers,” Susan Chen, branch manager of the Chinatown branch, said. “The library steps in to play that role.”

Libraries nationwide are looking for ways to support seniors in the community but not because they are changing their roles, said Maria Bonn, director of the library and information science master’s program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Bonn said the role of libraries has always been to provide for what the community needs. In many communities, that means providing more programs for seniors.

From 2007 to 2017, the population of people aged 65 and older increased from 37.8 million to 50.9 million, according to a 2018 report from the Administration for Community Living (ACL) — an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that focuses on the health of older adults, people with disabilities and their families. ACL estimated that by 2060, the number could reach 94.7 million.

Libraries in cities like Champaign, Illinois and Westerville, Ohio are offering more activities tailored for them, like “chair yoga” and coloring classes respectively.

According to Niche, a website that compiles data on neighborhoods, schools, colleges and companies, 23% of Chinatown’s population consists of people ages 65 and older, almost double the percentage of Chicago as a whole.

In a given week, CPL hosts around 10 events for seniors across all libraries, according to its online calendar. Many events are recurring, such as Chinatown’s board games for seniors and fitness classes.

These types of programs have been relatively new for Chinatown’s library. Until 2015, it was in an older building located around a small strip of stores, several blocks south of the current location. Because of the tight space, Chen said the old building was not conducive to holding more social activities.

The library underwent a major transformation when the city hired renowned architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill — known best for the One World Trade Center in New York — and Darien-based firm Wight & Company to design and build a new library.

Skidmore said in a release that the inside of the 16,000-square-foot building was designed to be more open with spaces for lectures, lounging and other activities — like having board games for seniors.

Chen said having the space gave seniors a chance to create a community by hanging out and chatting with friends during the day.

“They just need a place to meet together, to talk and do something,” Chen said.

Without it, seniors would be largely alone. Chen said they might typically go to dim sum restaurants in the mornings to meet with friends but would likely go home and be alone, possibly stopping for groceries on the way.

Dan Shi Li, who plays Chinese chess at the library four to five times a week, said he would have nothing to do all day if the library did not exist.

Li said he moved to the U.S. five years ago to be closer to his daughter. He looked for a job but couldn’t find one because he didn’t speak English.

“The library has given me hobbies like reading books and playing Chinese chess,” Li said. He added that the game is currently his favorite hobby.

Linzhen Liang, a library regular, said her mother came four to five times a week to read Chinese books and chat with friends.

Liang, 50, said she hoped to use the library in a similar way when she reached her mother’s age

“In the U.S., it’s a lot less common to go to someone’s house to just meet up and chat,” Liang said. “So, you come to the library to meet up or come to the library after eating in Chinatown to hang out.”

Seniors inside and outside of the Chicago Public Library Chinatown branch’s community room listen to Cantonese Opera, one of several events and activities the older patrons participate in. (Michael Lee/MEDILL)

David Wu, executive director of the Pui Tak Center — an organization that offers many services to the Chinese community — said these kinds of resources were particularly important in Chinatown for seniors because language barriers often prevent them from going outside of the community.

“You have 8-year-old kids talking to the pharmacist at Walgreens [for them],” Wu said. “Seniors become — rather than guiding younger people — dependent.”

Branch manager Susan Chen said the library can be therapeutic and stimulating.

“The environment is what they need,” she said, adding that the library also offers other activities seniors go to, like having Cantonese Opera performed by people from the Zhaoqiu Chinese American ART Center. “People are always happy here and they’re always busy doing different things.”

According to the National Institute on Aging, a division of the National Institute of Health that focuses on understanding the nature of aging and extending the healthy years of life, loneliness and social isolation can lead to a higher risk of health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease and depression.

Chen said she hoped to offer more programs next year such as knitting, painting and fitness classes.

Back in the study room after a game of Chinese chess, library patron Dan Shi Li said he did not care if he will ever be a master at the game. Li said he was not there to win.

“I just love coming and playing with my friends,” he said.

Photo at top: At the Chicago Public Library Chinatown branch, seniors go to the second-floor study room to play board games like Chinese chess, a strategy board game often played in China. Since 2015, the library has become a hub for senior citizens not only to use its resources, but also find community. (Michael Lee/MEDILL)