The Hua Kuang Chinese Reading Room in Palo Alto's Cubberley Community Center may contain a library of more than 13,000 books, but on a recent Wednesday afternoon it was anything but quiet.
"It's fun!" Celeste Yu said, clapping her hands. "Can't you tell from the noise level?"
The half-finished hats and socks in front of the eight women in Yu's knitting circle didn't get much attention as the women laughed and gossiped.
The reading room, which is entirely funded by donations and staffed by volunteers, is holding a fair (including a raffle) Saturday to raise money for its upkeep and celebrate its loyal supporters and their accomplishments. Crafts by people who have taken Hua Kuang's many classes, such as knitting, crocheting, and calligraphy, will be displayed.
New flower-arranging and scrap-booking classes offered this summer will also be highlighted, Hua Kuang President Kelly Tsai said. In addition, there will be a zither performance by the San Francisco Guzheng Society and work by local painter Amy King.
Ernest Hung opened the reading room, housed in a cramped classroom, in 1981 with his own private book collection. Chinese maps hang on the wall while bookshelves create a maze. There are Chinese children's books that can be read there for free, or readers can pay $20 yearly for borrowing privileges.
Hua Kuang's mission is to serve the community by promoting Chinese culture and helping new immigrants fit into American society. It strives to achieve this goal through its role as a Chinese community center, offering various craft courses and weekly citizenship classes, including English language instruction.
Helen Chan has led knitting classes for years. Her students work on personal projects, as well as collaborate on larger projects for donation, such as the Afghan blanket they just finished that will be donated to the Ronald McDonald House.
"You really learn to knit and crochet," knitter Yu said. "You also learn about health issues and how to register your car. It's a social gathering."
"But it's most important as a support group," fellow crafter Nancy Liu interrupted. "East and West, we're all alike. We love to gab!"
The group exchanges recipes from home and tips on the best dim sum restaurants. (Dim Sum King in Sunnyvale is their latest favorite.)
Older people often use the reading room as a social space, Tsai said. For many local grandparents, the reading room is the only place they have to hang out after they drop their grandchildren off at school. Many of these seniors came to the U.S. speaking little English. At the fair on Saturday there will be testimonies from people who passed their naturalization exams after participating in the citizenship class.
When Yolande Niu retired and moved to Menlo Park eight years ago she had few friends. Noting that there were not many Chinese in Menlo Park, Niu came to Hua Kuang and began volunteering. The community and friends Niu found at the reading room have kept her coming back for more than seven years, and she is now the reading room's treasurer.
Niu, who substitutes as the citizenship-class teacher, said even after studying English grammar and vocabulary, many of the older Chinese men and women need to learn idioms and slang.
"This is the only place they don't feel foolish asking their questions," she said.
In addition to helping older people pass their naturalization exams, the reading room offers much to younger people who hope to learn more about China.
"This room has lots of Chinese history," Liu said, pointing to a map of Chinese dynasties.
Many of the books are old, out-of-print classics, librarian Jeanne Fong said.
"You can't find them in local public libraries."
Liu pointed to a portrait. "Mr. Hung? He collected all these things, and we continue to collect."
The fair will take place Saturday, July 10 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Cubberley Community Center, room H4, 4000 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto.
More information is available by calling 650-856-3733.