At Cabramatta’s Whitlam Library, Asian teens crunch on Hot Star chicken bones and slurp tapioca pearls from their Gong Cha cups. They ignore the staff’s requests to keep quiet, their chatter loud and comfortable, greasy hands rubbing crumbs over the backs of chairs and into the fraying bean bag skins.
An elderly Cantonese man glares as I walk by. His back stooped over a clunky computer, shoulders rising like a cat preparing for a midnight tussle. On his monitor, I catch the pink flash of a side boob. I remember reading something about the library being Jean-Paul Sartre’s temple. Looking around, any holy quality must be pretty subtle.
When I first visited the Whitlam at age six, the greying bricks and flickering bulbs reminded me of an end-of-world bunker. The shoving and pinching kids that stalked the children’s shelves didn’t help.
Dad was the one who insisted on our weekly trips. As a kindergartener, I communicated mostly in Mandarin. Like many working class immigrants, my parents knew little about what kind of literature constituted “good taste” in Australia, and knew even less about helping me through the tangled conventions of English grammar. Dad’s solution was to take me to the library.
Whitlam was first, where he encouraged me to borrow 30 books at a time, carried home in Woolies tote bags. On the days Dad had the car, we would drive to the bigger Liverpool library. The crowd was nearly the same but the thick cluster of book shelves seemed never-ending, its wide central staircase like those in Disney children’s movies — palatial, almost holy.
Between trips to the two libraries, I read voraciously — everything from the colourful fantasy of Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle to Takaya’s shojo manga series Fruits Basket. Later, dense Jonathan Safran Foer novels I pretended to like and understand.
Meanwhile, Dad engaged in broken but cheery small talk with the employees. “I like the people here,” he said once, after a young staff member spent 20 minutes explaining how to borrow Chinese-language DVDs. “They’re patient with me.”
Dad habitually perused rotating stands of films, his fry cook hands gently skimming Jackie Chan titles like Police Story and Armour of God. The year after the release of controversial Taiwanese spy drama Lust Caution, a copy shone at the front of Liverpool library. I managed to catch a glimpse of the risqué cover, which showed the naked curve of Tang Wei’s back, before Dad clapped his hand over my eyes and tossed the film onto his growing pile.
It became a familiar ritual, the way he luxuriated in these treasures. Every midnight, when Dad returned from the restaurant, I listened for the wheezing of our dodgy DVD player. Like clockwork, I would hear the ka-pow sounds of 90s Hong Kong films and Dad’s hearty laughter. Even then, I could tell how much it meant to him. For me, the library was a bridge to a new world – for Dad it returned him across the ocean, all the way home.
Our libraries were cultural melting pots. But what I didn’t know then was that they weren’t neutral harbours of knowledge. At school, my teacher’s eyes would light up when I mentioned Tolkien or Austen, but namedropping famed Japanese manga artists like Hiromu Arakawa would earn me blank stares.
I learnt about Dad’s tastes in films and books (political thrillers, slapstick). I learnt he likes to take his time, even if it was a luxury to him
As my reading habits slowly moved toward an all-Western canon, my library-going tradition with Dad also began to shift. I was losing my Chinese language skills. And with it, the fragile flow of our conversations. But even as our reading habits diverged, this shared love we have for the library remained.
In his book Palaces for the People, NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg says libraries “offer something for everyone” — a shelter for the intellectually hungry or lonely, a secular church. The people in the libraries I knew were loud and unruly, spoke openly in mother tongues and wore everything from rags to fresh Tommy Hilfiger gear. But nobody was ever turned away. There was power in not being judged. Power in accessing books, films and digital resources we couldn’t otherwise afford.
The library also gave Dad and me a safe space to exist outside our roles at home. Growing up, I was raised mainly by my grandparents, while my parents often worked overtime and on weekends. Dad’s presence was almost abstract, materialising only at night smelling of vegetable oil and samosas. But in libraries, I began to know him as a flesh-and-blood person with his own singular habits.
I learnt about Dad’s tastes in films and books (political thrillers, slapstick). I learnt he likes to take his time, even if it was a luxury to him. I learnt we’re both people who have a constant need to jostle others when anything exciting pops up in a story, eager to share every joy and thrill.
In recent years, we began visiting libraries less and less. My friends bought me a Kindle, which I use to buy cheap books, while Dad turned to Baidu to stream films. But something about our library days remains at the core of our relationship — resurfacing each time we watch Hong Kong dramas together, or when I see Dad conversing confidently to strangers in English. I may never quite think of The Whitlam as a temple, but the time we spent there together will always be sacred to me.
Claire Cao is a freelance writer from Western Sydney and a fiction editor for Voiceworks. She was recently published in the anthology Sweatshop Women. Follow Claire on Twitter @clairexinwen.
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_