China: Refuge For Bookworms and The Broken-Hearted

Refuge For Bookworms and The Broken-Hearted

Wu Guichun stands in front of Dongguan Library. PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY.


It was dusk in late November in subtropical Guangdong province. Cool winds had dispersed the perennial humidity.

In the well-lit sitting room of a bungalow in an alley in Nancheng town of Dongguan, Wu Guichun, 54, was eating a 15-yuan ($2.3) takeaway dinner on a desk. It consisted of steamed rice, vegetables and three kinds of stir-fried meats as well as a pickled duck egg.

The place belonged to a shoe factory owner whom Wu had known for 17 years since he arrived. Normal rent was 500 yuan a month, but Wu lived here temporarily free of charge.

The only furniture in the sitting room was a desk and a stool. Under the desk were a pair of dark navy blue plastic slippers and a pair of canvas shoes of the same color, all the shoes he owned besides the black leather ones on his feet, he said. For years, Wu had been a minimalist with his belongings, given that he was always having to move, he said.

In June, Wu, one of 6 million migrant workers in Dongguan, became an instant celebrity nationwide after working there for 17 years because of comments he had made about the city’s main library, comments that millions found both touching and inspirational after they made their way onto the internet.

Wu, of Xiaogan, Hubei province, said he first came to Dongguan to look for opportunities in 2003 after his wife left him.

Dongguan, which many know as “the Factory of the World”, was attracting young people from all over the country, many working in the city when labor-intensive light industries held sway.

Wu, 37 at the time, was deemed too old for these manufacturing behemoths and had to look for opportunities in small shoe factories, where his job was to put glue on shoe parts.

In those days Wu’s monthly salary was 3,000 yuan, which grew to more than 10,000 yuan in busy periods. In recent years he has been happy to receive 5,000 yuan a month.

At first he bought cheap books, but in 2008 started going to Dongguan Library.

The conditions were pleasant, there was access to water, you could read anything you liked and, best of all, it was free.

Over the past 20 years, as Dongguan’s importance as a manufacturing center has grown, its GDP has risen 20-fold to nearly 950 billion yuan in 2019. As the economy has grown the city has tried to improve people’s cultural lives.

In 2002 a library covering 45,000 square meters (484,400 sq. ft.) was built, the largest of its kind for a prefecture-level city in China.

Two years later the city set about building an extensive library network, opening branches around the city. A bus library delivers books to different towns every day so that workers in factories can borrow or return books without traveling long distances.

In 2005 Dongguan Library started offering services 24 hours a day, believed to be a first in China.

Six years after this great literary adventure began, the American Library Association bestowed on Dongguan Library the International Innovation Award for its services, the first time it was given outside the United States.

In most of his years in Dongguan, Wu, unlike hundreds of millions of other Chinese, did not return to his hometown for Spring Festival.

In January last year Wu unusually went back home for the Spring Festival. He did not return until June because of the COVID-19 lockdown. On June 24, aware that he might never return to Dongguan, went to the library to return his 12-year-old library card and get his 100 yuan security deposit back.

A librarian, Wang Yanjun, sensing his hesitancy as she took care of the paper work, took out the library’s comments book and asked Wu to leave a comment.

“I’ve worked in Dongguan for 17 years, and been reading at this library for 12 years,” he wrote. “Books enlighten people. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of factories have closed, migrant workers cannot find jobs, and we choose to go back to our hometowns. Thinking about all my years in Dongguan, the best place for me has been the library. As much I want to stay, I cannot, but I will never forget you, Dongguan Library.”

Another librarian took a photo of the comment and posted it online, and before long it was doing the rounds of the internet.

In October he returned to his hometown and found that although his granddaughters wanted to read books, there was no book available. So he cashed in a 6,000 yuan book coupon he had received and mailed all the books.

“My goal is to build a small library for my hometown,” he said.

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