When Yao Ming’s Houston Rockets came to visit the Seattle Sonics in his rookie season, a Chinese basketball tournament was being held in town and hundreds of Chinese, some of them quite tall, were in attendance to cheer on their hero.
Long before Yao came along, there were young Chinese men and women who learned the game on a playground in San Francisco’s Chinatown and went on to become successful in the basketball world.
Kathleen S. Yep’s new book “Outside the Paint: When Basketball Ruled at the Chinese Playground,” provides new insight into the teams and its players, dating back to the 1920s and 1930s.
Using a fast break basketball style, intricate passing and aggressive defense, Yep writes that these players were ahead of its time, often beating white teams and winning championships in various leagues.
A men’s professional team, the Hong Wah Kues was managed by Abe Saperstein, who owned the famous Harlem Globetrotters.
The Hong Wah Kues went on the road with a six-player team, often playing in small towns where the Chinese were viewed as foreigners.
Posters depicted the Hong Wah Kues as oddities. A Grangeville, California poster declared that the city was at war and was going to be attacked. “There are the Chinese Invaders,” posters declared.
Saperstein encouraged the players to speak Chinese on the court, adding to their entertainment value as audiences laughed at them.
But it was the Chinese who had the last laugh.
The Hong Wah Kues beat plenty of local teams made up of former college and high school stars where ever they went.
Robert Lum, 5 foot three inches, was the team’s star player, known for his ball handling skills and ability to maneuver around taller opponents.
“The little chap proved one of the smartest dribblers and ball manipulators seen here this season and his clowning in the bucket and weaving offensive had the spectators in continual laughter,” the Victoria Daily Times reported.
News coverage often complimentary but racial in tone. “Some used terms now regarded as racial slurs, such as ‘the Chinks flashed a snappy and deceptive passing attack,’” the book said.
Often turned away from restaurants because of the color of their skin, the Hong Wah Kues found comfort from the Chinese communities in cities they visited.
In Amarillo, Texas, Chinese fans made won ton soup for the team. In Seattle, the community invited the players to go Christmas caroling.
In Vancouver British Columbia, 300 Chinese fans turned out to cheer on the Hong Wah Kues. Two hundred attended an elaborate banquet in their honor.
“The Kues served as icons of racial pride to various Chinese communities across the Untied States and Canada. Some Chinese viewed the tour as an opportunity for racial uplift…,” said Yep.
William Woo Wong was a basketball legend in Chinatown and went on to earn the respect of the basketball world. After scoring 37 points, the San Francisco Examiner named him the “star” of one tournament.
Only 5 foot five inches tall, Wong was recruited to the University of San Francisco by renowned coach Pete Newell. Wong made 70 percent of his field goals as a freshman.
While on the varsity team, Wong became the first Chinese player to appear in a game at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Yep interviewed Newell in 2005 and asked him about Wong’s skills. “He was a remarkable shooter. You could put a mask on him and he could put the ball in anywhere. He was effective…especially against a zone defense,” said Newell.
The name Mei Wah means “beautiful flower” in Chinese and this team of women gained a reputation for speed, a post game and physical play.
The headline for their chapter in the book read “The Mei Wahs Knew How to Use Their elbows and Push.”
They were successful in part, due to their “suffocating defense” and an offense that sent players cutting to the basket to receive passes and score.
“White girls are taller, but we were quicker,” recalled Rachael Lee.
Because the players did not own cars, they piled into a Chinese laundry truck to travel to games.
This was in the 1930s when the Chinese stayed within the confines of Chinatown. There was no mixing of Chinese and Whites in those days.
The Mei Wah players were sometimes matched up against White girls who had taunted them racially in school. The games gave the Chinese girls a chance at payback.
Yep described one incident when a White player began slapping Mae Fung. Fung slapped her back.
Both players continued to slap each other and Fung did not back down.
“On the basketball court, they could give back as much attitude as they got,” wrote Yep.
Helen Wong was considered one of the best athletes to come from Chinatown in the 1960s, said Yep.
In a time when teams averaged 20 to 30 points a game, Wong scored 20 points a contest with regularity.
Her Saint Mary’s Saints made the San Francisco girl’s CYO championship playoffs four consecutive years. They won the championship twice.
For the Chinese players who played basketball at the Chinese Playground, “Outside the Paint. When Basketball Ruled at the Chinese Playground,” is a record of their remarkable achievements.
Those who were unaware of this history, can feel proud of the respect they earned on the court.
The Chinese Playground celebrated its 75th Anniversary in 2002.