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Conversation Club aims to build community among Chinatown residents

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  April 26, 2013 02:00 PM

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Lun Tian Yew

The Conversation Club met on April 13 to share stories of coming to Boston from other parts of the world.

Lun Tian Yew grew up in a Singapore high-rise where many residents kept to themselves. Several years ago, her grandmother was returning from grocery shopping when she had a sudden stroke and collapsed in the lobby, breaking a bottle of vinegar.

A neighbor who was in the lobby quickly alerted the Yews. Lun Tian Yew said a bleached spot still remains where the vinegar fell, reminding her that those frightening moments would have been very different if that neighbor hadn’t known her family.

“People would be tending to her, but she wouldn’t know them, and we wouldn’t be by her side,” she said.

That personal experience helps drive Yew as she works with three classmates from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government to create a Conversation Club at Chinatown’s Oak Terrace Reading Room, where people from different generations and cultural backgrounds come together to talk about common experiences.

Too often, Yew said by phone on Thursday, people living in large residential complexes don’t get to know their neighbors and make the kind of connections that allowed her family to be present and to comfort her grandmother.

“We’re not just numbers,” Yew said. “We all have history, and we all have dreams.”

About 20 residents attended the first meeting of the group on April 13, and the students hope to see a larger turnout on Saturday, April 27, when they will discuss discrimination. The students are working to bring together neighborhood residents from many backgrounds to share their varied personal experiences, Yew said.

Sukey Lu, another member of the student team, said in an e-mail that the discussion will include a look at the current debate over immigration issues in light of the Boston Marathon bombings, allegedly conducted by ethnic Chechens who emigrated from Russia.

Yew said those who attended the first meeting of the Conversation Club, where the discussion centered around the different journeys that had brought them to Boston, shared very moving personal stories, and afterward she heard many positive responses.

“The one theme that kept ringing through is, we’re so glad that someone is here to hear this,” she said.

Now the students hope enough residents from Oak Terrace and nearby developments will be interested in the Conversation Club that the residents can sustain it after the students have moved on.

“The ultimate goal is really to help people break out of their silos,” Yew said. “People can be coming from different backgrounds, but it’s possible that just by the fact they’re living in the same community that they’re facing some of the same challenges.”

The Conversation Club will meet from 6 – 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 27, at the Oak Terrace Reading Room at 888 Washington St. in downtown Boston. The reading room is on the building’s first floor, just off the elevator lobby.

For more information, contact the Conversation Club at

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at
Follow him on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
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