Ping-Pong Diplomacy

Illustration by Isabel Ochoa Gold
Illustration by Isabel Ochoa Gold

Behind an ajar back door, two graying men play Chinese chess on a wooden board. The small room, held by a foam ceiling and walls of propped-up green acrylic boards, is the home of the Chicago Chinese Table Tennis Club, safely tucked away on West 23rd Street.

Still, says club founder Phil Wong, the club is no secret. (“I think you’re the sixth reporter to come along.”) His chess opponent proudly announces that he is an alumnus of the University of Chicago, a graduate student who assisted Nobel laureate Yuan T. Lee on studies of chemical kinetics, in which beams of molecules collided to demonstrate properties of chemical reactions. “But doing the research needed clearance, and I wasn’t a citizen,” he says, “So I quit.” All of this occurred decades ago, back when America maintained few connections to mainland China. “Around 1971, the year of Nixon’s Ping-Pong Diplomacy,” he says, “the Maroon devoted an entire issue to table tennis.”

Behind him, on the two Ping-Pong tables that occupy most of the club’s spartan confines, particles congregate and collide. The white ball becomes inseparable from its trajectory; arms swing and jut; legs lurch and leap; sneakers squeak as they are dragged on the floor. The players, clad in a uniform of stained sweatshirts and headbands, are mostly Chinese, many of them well beyond middle age, and most of their returns strong and unforgiving. Wit rules here, a wit that manifests itself in the sparse chatter between points.

“See. You’ve improved so much.”


“You should’ve seen yourself two years ago, trying to beat your brother-in-law in such poor form.”

Waiting challengers sit on the benches, nodding and doling out applause to spectacular spars. The club is small enough to run on honor, not reservations—the losing player is switched out after each match, and even then players rarely have to wait for more than two matches. Whiteboards propped against the wall notate the status of members’ dues—six months of down payment warrants a key to the premises.

Illustration by Isabel Ochoa Gold
Illustration by Isabel Ochoa Gold

Wong came to Chicago in 1959, taking classes at UIC and working in a factory at Bell Labs. During the sixties, he began taking up table tennis seriously and joined amateur tournaments in different cities. The club began around 1993, when a basement lot opened. “I was friends with the landlord and gained his trust to operate the facilities,” says Wong.  A manila folder in a drawer stores photos of the venues they have occupied in search of low rent, and contains more photos of members posing with top-ranked players. “We’re for community more than for profit,” Wong continues. “Once we received enough members, we lowered the monthly fee from $50 to $30.”

On the Ping-Pong table, the battle continues. Kris, a middle-aged player from Bulgaria, tall and bulky in his neon sweatshirt, is characterized by Wong as “our best non-Chinese player.” He started playing at twelve, “considered to be quite late,” and started coming regularly four years ago. “When I routinely got my butt kicked,”  Kris adds. We watch the battle from the bench.

“Age isn’t really an issue,” he says. “What matters is experience and control. A good shot has something of three aspects: power, spin, and surprise. Each shot has a different amount of each characteristic.”

Kris says that the club has provided him a forum in which to develop his skills. “There aren’t a lot of young players here, but this is where they should be if they’re serious,” he says. “The players here are not just good but unique. Their technique is often unorthodox, not the kind you would teach. It’s special that balls return to you as if bearing signatures, as if no other player could have performed them.”

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