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If you walk by Block 2, Holland Avenue, you might notice a void deck lined with bookshelves – a community library.
But while such mini libraries are starting to spring up around Singapore, this one stands out because it is the reflection of a kampung spirit that was already there.
We met Wong Kae Chee, a 67-year-old piano teacher, who started HV Little Library in Aug 2022 with “just one bookshelf and a few books”.
But the long-time Holland Ave resident said that the kampung spirit has been around for years.
She has lived there in a three-room flat for more than 20 years with her youngest son, 43, who has special needs – her other three children and five grandchildren live overseas.
For example, before Covid, Kae Chee challenged herself to find out all the names of the migrant worker cleaners – all 21 of them – in her estate and started cleaning the area outside her flat to make their jobs easier.
She told The Pride: “By calling a person by his name, it creates an immediate connection. He’s no longer a ‘body’, he is ‘somebody’.”
In an interview with online publication Salt&Light, she said: “I just imagine if my son was the one working in a foreign country, how would I feel? So, I put myself in their shoes. What can make their lives a bit better? I can’t change the rules. But I can be kinder to them.”
When her neighbours noticed what she was doing, they started following suit, and a small act of kindness turned into a community effort.
Nowadays, Kae Chee hosts cleaner appreciation dinners at the seating area in the library. Residents pop by to join in, she says.
Dealing with challenges
Setting up and running the library wasn’t without challenges, but it created opportunities for residents to help each other.
Said Kae Chee: “People want to be kind, but they don’t know how.”
For example, the library is open to the elements and needed blinds to keep the books dry and residents comfortable. And when residents started a fund for the blinds, even the estate cleaners chipped in!
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When some concrete slabs used for landscaping were stolen, a group of retirees immediately bought replacements. Books also do get stolen, said Kae Chee sadly, but new books given by others more than make up for the loss – in fact she has stopped asking for donations.
Even dealing with concerns from the town council brought residents together. When officials told her that HV Little Library was a potential fire hazard and that it was “messy”, residents started posting pictures on Facebook and Instagram of their visits to show its cleanliness.
When the Pride visited the library, we met a resident who dropped by to donate hand-carved containers he made from laundry detergent bottles to decorate the library’s garden.
The little garden next to the library is also maintained by residents, who help keep the place clean and neat. For example, during HV Little Library’s recent six-month “monthsary” in Feb, they came to put together five Ikea bookcases someone had donated.
Kindness is contagious
Setting up the library provided opportunities to bring others into the community.
Kae Chee recalled that there was an older auntie asked her why she has so “much free time, no need to work meh?”.
She laughed and said: “I told her in Mandarin, ‘Auntie, you have 24 hours a day, so do I. I’m doing this because it makes me happy.’”
“A while later, when that same auntie saw me cleaning a shelf, she approached me and asked, ‘can I help you please?’”
And that help is appreciated, as the library is open 24/7. And it’s great to have other residents equally passionate about maintaining the library’s tidiness.
Kae Chee joked: “These aunties are even more OCD than me, they will come and sort all the books. So, when I hear complaints that the library is messy, I ask (the complainants) to come and see for themselves! It is all well maintained by the residents daily.”
Residents have a WhatsApp group to share news and updates on the library. There are about 30 regulars who chip in to keep the place clean and tidy.
The library is a meeting spot for the community. For example, pet caregivers – mostly cat and dog owners – gather daily at the void deck to chat. There’s even a group of volunteers that cares for the community cats.
There’s a group of 12 residents that call themselves “Sewciopaths”, who gather for weekly sewing sessions. A resident, a fitness instructor, does a workout session every Saturday at 2pm.
When we were there, a domestic helper came by with a box of chocolates. Kae Chee told us that she looks after an older uncle, a stroke victim. When she found out that the uncle liked to play Chinese chess, she gathered several residents to play with him – and they found out that he is a chess master! Now he’s at the library every day at 2pm, waiting for an opponent.
Small acts of kindness abound, said Kae Chee. A resident provided tablecloths to cover the holes in the wire-frame void deck tables; she gets free leftover bread from a nearby bakery to share with workers and residents.
“There’s even someone who buys the different newspapers for the library. There are fresh copies every day, and I don’t even know who does it!”
One activity that is close to her heart, said Kae Chee, is the thrice weekly table tennis games.
Someone donated a table-tennis table, and all residents – young and old – can participate. Her son seldom leaves the flat, but he has started to play ping-pong with strangers, she told us proudly. The coach, a 78-year-old retiree, comes all the way from Toa Payoh to teach them the game.
It’s more than just a meeting point too. When Kae Chee broke her arm recently, many asked about her because she wasn’t at her “office”, a joking reference to the library. Residents even left food at her door to make sure that she was okay.
While she is proud of how residents came together to build a common kampung space, she believes that that the library is just an opportunity for people to be kind to one another.
Said Kae Chee: “Our little library is the frosting in top of the cake; it is the love and human connection that sustains this place.”