HomeChinese AmericanChinese seniors find community with ping pong at a NYC park

Chinese seniors find community with ping pong at a NYC park

By Kathy Ou

Almost every night at Seward Park in lower Manhattan, a group of 10 to 30 people gather around the ping pong table. 

[SOUND of people playing ping pong]

A fierce doubles was taking place tonight when I arrived. 

[SOUND of people playing ping pong]

Tucked between Chinatown and the Lower East Side, right outside the East Broadway station and facing what’s become known as the “Dimes Square,” the Seward Park ping pong scene is a curious sight. A cohort of Asian seniors sporting tennis shoes and baseball caps mingled with other young regulars varying in fashions, professions, and ping pong experiences.

Zheng Baocai is a fifty-something Chinese uncle. Among the crowd, he goes by the affectionate “A Bao.” A Bao is not playing tonight because he strained his back a few months ago while playing the sport. But he remains a constant, and is one of the loudest cheerleaders in the crowd and an enthusiastic commentator.  

Share this story with someone who reads Chinese: 曼哈顿下城的移民乒乓球文化 – AsAmNews

[SOUNDBITE of A Bao] A Bao told me, like many of his peers here, he played ping pong as a young child back in China for fun. It was never serious. Since about 5 or 6 years ago, after moving back from a few years in another city and planning for retirement life, A Bao picked up the sport again. He taught himself by watching videos online, exchanged techniques with friends and played consistently from his senior center to the different parks. 

[SOUNDBITE – “And A Bao is like training me, ‘do this, do this when you serve, do that, practice.’”]

Sindy Chen is a grad student at Columbia University. She came upon the park at the start of this summer and became fascinated with the ping pong crowd and a group of people blasting music nearby. She became a regular music player playing popular Chinese songs in the 80s.

[SOUNDBITE – “And then, A Bao, gave me a paddle. I wasn’t playing I was just playing music, I was just watching I was just chilling. And then he gave me a paddle, and then that’s when I started coming back every day.”]

[SOUNDBITE – “It’s like a ‘cult’… We call it a ‘ping pong cult’ because it’s not like you have to know how to play. We borrow paddles out to people who just pass by and they want to try, and they would just come here. And some people just come here once, and they keep coming back.”

[SOUNDBITE – “My name is Elliott and I’m a nineteen-year-old living in London, and I’m on vacation in New York, and I’m staying 50 meters from Seward Park.”]

Elliott came upon the park while wandering around one day. 

[SOUNDBITE – “I had nothing to do, so I just sat there and watched and saw if I could play. And then, I played a bit, and I really liked this, and so I played for another day, and I got my own racket so I ended up playing every day.”]

Within his 9-day trip with few plans, what started as a time kill ended up becoming something serious, and he has been…

[SOUNDBITE – “Basically on a training run trying to get better. Like way, way better… the cool thing is people are teaching me how to serve. So I learned three different ways to serve just in my six days being here. That was very nice.”]

The best part?

[SOUNDBITE – “Oh, today winning! I actually won games today, that was so nice. Like we were actually running the table for three games. That was really really nice. It never happens.”]

But it’s not all about the games. What started years ago as a group of Chinese seniors looking for healthy hang-out activities has grown to attract younger crowds. When the first table was built in Seward Park near the library years ago, A Bao said the group had since migrated from other nearby parks. As noise complaints move the table multiple times before reaching its current location on Essex St this May, the community remains. 

[SOUNDBITE – A Bao] He said, what distinguishes playing here versus other places is the vibe. Regardless of the player’s skill level, good or bad, it’s all good vibes. Everyone is friends with one another. White people, Black people, everyone can play. 

[SOUNDBITE – “The social element is as important as the game.”]

As summer receded and school restarted, Sindy had to spend less time at the park.

[SOUNDBITE – “I had a withdrawal period from this park when school started. Definitely felt like an addiction.”]

But she came whenever she could.

[SOUNDBITE – “The older aunties, they’re retired, and they’re like just like ‘you’re young, you need to do what you gotta do you know. You can’t be at the park every night!’ And I know that! But it’s just like, this is so fun.”]

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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