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Charlotte's Asian Library Is 'A Hidden Treasure'

Across the street from the Metropolitan shopping complex east of Uptown is the Asian Library. Never heard of it? You're not alone.  

"It is like a hidden treasure for Charlotte. Lots of people -- they walk in, they say, 'What is this place?'" -- XiaoSong Hè

Since 1985, it's grown into one of the largest private Asian libraries in the United States. It has more than 132,000 books in Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese.

Credit Tasnim Shamma
Ki-Hyun Chun reaches for a book in the Chinese children's book section at the Asian Library.

As a young boy growing up in Seoul, South Korea, Ki-Hyun Chun was forced to read books every day.    

"When I was young, my father asked me to read books," Chun says. "If I didn't read books, he didn't give me any supper."

Or ... he could choose to have supper, but it would be followed by a beating with a stick for not reading that night. His assignment was to read 120 books per year. He says he resented his father for not allowing him to play outside with his friends.

"One book every two days. It just drove me crazy!" Chun says. "So I cannot say, you know, I do not like to read books and that you are asking us too much. You know, in Asian society, you have to respect your father."

Collecting Books

But as he grew older, he fell in love with books. He came to North Carolina in 1971 to study journalism on a Rotary Ambassadorial scholarship at Lenoir-Rhyne University. But he studied math instead and now he's a CPA. When he arrived, Chun says he was distressed to learn that other Asian immigrants didn't share the same access to books that he had. So he wrote a 19-page letter to his father.

"I said father, I'm really concerned about the intellectual well-being of the Asian people, because they didn't bring any books!" Chun says. "And then, he said, 'Son, I will give you a job. Someday I want you to open an Asian Library.'"

Credit Tasnim Shamma
Ki-Hyun Chun shows off a book about Bill Clinton translated to Chinese.

So for the past 43 years, he and his children collected books. Some were shipped directly from Asian countries and sometimes they purchased truckloads of books from cities with larger Asian populations like New York and L.A. The library opened in 1985.

The two-story building now has more than 132,000 books – of all genres. For example, you'll find Korean translations of classics like Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, copies of the Asian Herald newspaper, (which he's also the founder of), and books on the lighter side, like a book in Korean on how to fish. 

But the Asian library is much more than a library.

An Asian Cultural Center

XiaoSong Hè teaches students how to read and write Chinese during her summer camp and after school tutoring program.   

"There's no other place like this in Charlotte," she says. "Really, there isn't. We can speak our own languages: Chinese, Korean. It's like a big Asian family here."

Credit Tasnim Shamma
XiaoSong He reads to students enrolled in the Chinese language summer camp at the Asian Library.

Every month, you'll find Chinese karaoke nights and Vietnamese birthday celebrations as well as a Filipino language school. 

Credit Tasnim Shamma
XiaoSong He shows a student how to play the Chinese waist drum during a summer program at the Asian Library.

She uses the back half of the library space – which looks sort of like a dance studio with its wall-to-wall mirrors – to teach students how to play the Chinese waist drum. 

But it's not just Asians who use the library. The FBI holds meetings here, as does the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party and Black Women's Caucus of Charlotte. 

Valuable Assets

Chun – everyone calls him Dr.Chun – is like a wise elder. He's 70 years old. He smiles often and has inspirational quotes at the tip of his tongue.

"Most immigrants don't have money to go travel," Chun says. "So even though you don't go to Africa, you don't go to Europe, through the books you can meet the people living in different worlds. So books make you globalize your idea."

Each time he finishes a book downstairs, he moves it to a bookshelf upstairs. He says he spent more than $3 million building up this library. And he says he'd be very wealthy if he had invested his money in stocks. But instead, he says, these books are his assets.

"Book will give you sound mind, that's what my father keep telling me," Chun says. "Book will give you tears. Book will give you compassion so you understand others."

The library has more than 4,000 members. And getting a library card is easy – it's a one-time $10 lifetime membership fee. But like any library, his is not immune to the impact of technology. 

"The saddest thing is, now people use the internet to read, so I lost about 15 percent membership," Chun says. 

He says he plans to digitize the books starting in 2017.