A great leap forward

AT THE 2012 Olympic Games in London, Hong Kong won a medal – a bronze in cycling. We almost won an unprecedented second medal: our men’s table tennis team lost the bronze medal match to Germany. It would also have been only our second-ever medal in table tennis, and fourth in any sport. A couple of hours later, the mainland Chinese team won gold – its twenty-fourth in Olympic table tennis and fourth in London alone.

When Hong Kong plays table tennis, when we do anything, it seems, we do so in the shadow of mainland Chinese paddles. And it’s not just us: every team that competes in table tennis at the Olympics is playing for silver. Since 1996, China has won all but one of the twenty gold medals awarded, and from South Korea and Taiwan to Germany and Denmark, no team has beaten any Chinese team or doubles pairing since 1988, when table tennis became an Olympic sport. Hong Kong table tennis players know this too well: they have not once, in fourteen attempts, ever beaten their mainland Chinese compatriots at the Olympics.

It was not always like this.

In the 1940s, as scores of Chinese refugees flowed into Hong Kong, squatter huts sprouted up, among other places, on the eastern end of Hong Kong Island along the Shau Kei Wan hillside, and with them a young boy who had a preternatural talent for table tennis. By fifteen, he was representing the Federation of Trade Unions in local competitions; by seventeen, he was the Hong Kong champion.

His childhood friend, the economist Steven Cheung, remembers the budding table tennis star finding work with the Federation of Trade Unions and managing a small library in its office in Wan Chai, home to more famous fictional prostitutes (one: Suzie Wong) than accomplished athletes. The office was comprised of the library and a room just large enough to fit a table tennis table. It was from here – this little room in an old building adjacent to Southorn Playground, where I now go to watch the best pick-up basketball in town – that table tennis in Hong Kong took a fateful turn towards China’s unyielding dominance in the sport today.

THE YOUNG MAN’S name was Rong Guotuan – or as it was romanised then, Jung Kuo-tuan. With time to kill on the job, but with no sparring partner, Rong perfected his serve on the table in that Wan Chai office, his sights set on competing in the next world championships in Dortmund, Germany. But the hours alone in that room, and the innovative hitting techniques he developed, weren’t enough; in May 1957, Rong failed to make the Hong Kong team that competed in Manila at the Asian Table Tennis Championships. If he couldn’t make the Manila cut, he wasn’t going to Dortmund.

As tens of thousands of refugees continued to pour south across the border and into shantytown settlements like the one he called home in Shau Kei Wan, Rong Guotuan went the other way – he went north. Ludicrous though it sounds today, Rong thought he had a better chance of achieving table tennis success on the mainland. And he wasn’t the first: a few years earlier, two other accomplished Hong Kong table tennis players, Fu Qifang and Jiang Yongning, had also crossed north in search of greater glory, which they had largely found. Rong planned to do the same.

So in November 1957, Rong Guotuan showed up at the doors of the Guangzhou Institute of Physical Education and declared he would be a world champion in three years. That same month, the People’s Daily ran an editorial attacking rightists who dared to doubt China’s production capacity. ‘They do not understand that upon agricultural collectivisation,’ the editorial read, ‘we will have the conditions and the necessity on the production front to make a great leap forward.’

FROM 2–4 APRIL 1959, at the World Table Tennis Championships in Dortmund, Rong Guotuan lost just three games en route to the quarterfinals, where he went the distance: first against Hungary’s Zoltán Berczik and then again in the semi-finals against the American Dick Miles. Miles, who grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, had apprenticed his game first at Public School 166 and then at the table tennis clubs that sprung up in the 1930s and 1940s along a forty-block section of Broadway, north of Times Square. When Miles died in 2010, his New York Times obituary described him as ‘perhaps the greatest table tennis player the United States has ever produced’.

Dick Miles was leading Rong two games to one and 12-8 in the fourth game when the American’s trademark forehand, a ferocious stroke straight down the middle laced with dizzying topspin, began to fail him. Miles came within three points of beating Rong before the boy from Shau Kei Wan stormed back with his Wan Chai serve, winning the fourth 21-18 and crushing Miles 21-8 in the fifth and final game.

On 5 April, in the final, Rong faced another Hungarian: Ferenc Sidó, the 1953 world champion. You can find black-and-white clips of the match on YouTube, and the cavernous Westfalenhalle looks like a darkened airplane hangar, a lonely spotlight shining on the single table set up in the middle of the great hall. Rong is dressed in a polo shirt and long pants, as if he had just stepped out for lunch from his old office in Wan Chai. He is skinny, sleeves flapping around his arms, but he has the bulkier, taller Sido constantly on the defensive, whipping forehands and backhands with equally brutal snaps of his bony wrist, stringing Sido from corner to corner. A group of European men with widow’s peaks sit in a line behind Rong, stoic.

Up two games to one and 20-14 in the fourth game, Rong rallies routinely with Sido on match point before pushing Sido out wide with a forehand on the seventh shot. He lures Sido back in with a drop shot, forcing Sido to lunge forward into a return. The Hungarian manages one more forehand, but his footwork is already compromised, and he sends the following shot straight into the middle of the net. There is no primal scream or ecstatic leap, not even a fist pump. Rong simply raises his right palm in the air briefly before shaking Sido’s hand. He is twenty-one. He is a year and seven months ahead of schedule. And he is China’s first world champion – in any sport.

Six months later, Mao Zedong stood with his guest of honour, Nikita Khrushchev, above Tiananmen Square as seven-hundred thousand people below sang along to ‘The East is Red’ and marked the tenth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The anniversary was coupled with Rong’s victory in Dortmund and celebrated as a wedding would be – an event of ‘double happiness’ that gave birth to the table tennis equipment company of the same name. Vice Premier He Long personally received Rong at the airport, and soon China’s first international sports star was being feted by Premier Zhou Enlai and Mao himself. Even my mother, growing up a world away in Bandung, Indonesia, remembers hearing about Rong at her Chinese school.

‘We were all so proud,’ she recalls. She was ten years old.

I THINK ABOUT what might have been had Dick Miles not lost control of his forehand that April day in Dortmund. Rong’s triumph ushered in the first era of Chinese table tennis ascendancy; although Rong never won another world championship, his teammate Zhuang Zedong, coached by Fu Qifang, won the next three titles before the Cultural Revolution interrupted China’s participation in international competition. Had Rong stayed in Wan Chai, had he not strayed from his office next to Southorn, would a generation of young Chinese athletes have been inspired to take up table tennis? If not, would there have been a Chinese bus at the 1971 world championships in Nagoya, and would the American player Glenn Cowan ever have had the chance to meet Zhuang on that bus and exchange gifts? Without ping-pong diplomacy, how much longer would it have taken for China to open up to the United States, and to the world? And where would that have left us? Would it have pushed the 1984 negotiations on Hong Kong’s return to China uncomfortably close to the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations? Would Great Britain then have renegotiated – or reneged on – the terms under which it would leave Hong Kong in 1997, and if so, where would that have left us?

The last Friday of the last Olympic Games, 10 August 2012, was Rong Guotuan’s seventy-fifth birthday. He could have celebrated by being in the stands in London, cheering on both the Chinese and Hong Kong teams as they methodically advanced in the tournament, much as he had in Dortmund in 1959. He could have been introduced to the crowd as the father of Chinese table tennis, and asked how he felt that the Double Happiness tables used in the competition were named after his world championship title. He could have answered in Mandarin, or delighted Hong Kong audiences in his native Cantonese. He could have stood proudly facing the Chinese flag as it was raised, over and over again, to ‘March of the Volunteers’.

But Rong Guotuan was not in the stands in London that August. He was not able to enjoy the Chinese dominance at the Olympic Games in London, or before that in Beijing. He never saw any of the twenty-four gold medals, not one – not in Athens or Sydney, not in Atlanta or Barcelona or Seoul. He never even got to see his old rival Dick Miles cross north from Hong Kong across the Shenzhen River in April 1971 with Glenn Cowan and the rest of the American table tennis team, as they retraced the same steps Rong had taken fourteen years earlier. He never got to see what that journey, or his own, would mean for China, and he never in his wildest dreams could have imagined how different the border crossing would look today.

During the Cultural Revolution, Rong and his fellow table tennis players originally from Hong Kong, Fu Qifang and Jiang Yongning, were accused by Mao’s Red Guards of being counter-revolutionaries and spies. Once heralded as the ‘Three Heroes’ of Chinese table tennis, they were now scorned as revisionists. They were placed under house arrest and publicly humiliated, and on 16 April 1968, Fu Qifang left his wife and daughter at home and hanged himself in Beijing Stadium.

And on 16 May 1968, Jiang Yongning left his wife and daughter at home and hanged himself in Xiannongtan Stadium in Beijing.

And on 20 June 1968, Rong Guotuan left his wife and daughter at home and hanged himself on a tree by the side of Longtan Lake in Beijing. He was thirty. Among Rong’s crimes, it was said, were that he loved reading Western novels, that he enjoyed listening to classical music, and that he missed Hong Kong.

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