Article, video and photography by Sharon Han
“Ai! Ai!,” a table tennis player grunts as he narrowly tries to return a shot by his opponent. The ball whirs into the net, and the player collapses to the ground in frustration as his opponent fist-pumps the air. Onlookers, with crossed arms, nod in enjoyment, and discuss in Cantonese how the match went.
This scene played out recently at the New York International Table Tennis Center, one of three places to play table tennis in Flushing, making this diverse Queens neighborhood a center for this sport, whose roots begin in England but currently has the strongest following in China and East Asia.
While millions of Americans have long played table tennis, serious competitors generally migrate to clubs, of which there are several hundred in the country and about a dozen in New York City.
You can see the new demographics in the induction of players into the International Table Tennis Hall of Fame. Many early inductees were from Europe, including Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Sweden. Then East Asians rose to prominence, and by the late 1990s the Hall of Fame inductees mostly came from China, Japan and South Korea, and the majority of Olympic medalists from China.
Founded by Coach Yuxiang Li, the New York International Table Tennis Center nestles inconspicuously between a deli and hotel on 35th Avenue, with a table tennis paddle (the connoisseurs call them racquets) drawn on a metal sign. Li started playing table tennis at age 6 and eventually became a member of the Chinese National Team, according to his website.
On the Butterfly Table Tennis website, his page says he started his international career training Erik Lindh, who won a bronze medal for Sweden in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Li also coached Ryu Seungmin, the 2004 gold medalist for South Korea, and the longtime European Champion Vladimir Samsonov.
The Asian American Cultural Center of Tribeca was founded by Robert Chen in lower Manhattan and after a first move to Chinatown relocated in Flushing, though Chen kept the name. Originally a professional photographer and director, he decided after the 9/11 attacks that he wanted to make an impact on his community, thinking “How come innocent lives have to die?”
Chen said he began to wonder about the meaning in his own life and realized that he wanted to have more of a positive impact on others, and decided that through the cultural center, he could not only teach table tennis, a sport he had been playing for 10 years, but also serve the community through it.
After coaching at New York University for four years, he decided to focus on growing his cultural center, which has a dozen tables over two levels. He has even created a Meetup group to promote his center.
Xiaolin Li, who is about 50 years old, is a member of the center, which she described as a convenient place to play with players she knows, as she lives in Bayside. Having played table tennis for 45 years, she talked extensively of its benefits: “It builds you physically and mentally, and secondly, you can make many friends. And No. 3, it builds good character.”
Farther along Northern Boulevard on 162nd Street is New York Table Tennis, owned by Lee Chun Sook. In an interview in Korean, he was an enthusiastic advocate for the sport, describing it as an excellent way to meet all kinds of people.
His center is well-lighted and relatively quiet, with a small lounge area, new equipment and a cooler for drinks. It sells chips, candy and ice cream. Lee had been playing an intense game of mah jong with a friend before stopping to chat.
“Members are usually people who have played in Korea and decided they want to play here once they had immigrated,” he said. “Though we mainly speak Korean here, we have players from Russia, Nigeria, and even Sweden. There is a great opportunity for friendship in ping pong, since it’s a partner sport! Also, the morning to afternoon is usually filled with senior citizens, we have an afternoon program for kids, and professionals usually come at night. We encourage all people to play table tennis!”