Philippine Liha Table Tennis
By: Dr. Mike Babuin, At-Large Director USA Table Tennis
Philippine ‘Liha’ at the most basic of descriptions is table tennis played with a sandpaper racket. In truth it is much, much more. The liha rules to any American at first glance may be deemed confusing (if not frustrating) or possibly even ‘primitive’ in nature especially related to the serve and serve return rules. I for one in 2010 was a big skeptic. I could not understand (nor did I like) the rule which requires an easy serve with no spin or other tricks – after all, in a conventional game to 11 points, I better get a few points off my serve- right? Neither could I understand the requirement to chop the ball received from every serve (me being an attacking player, the last thing I wanted to do was chop). Finally the most confusing aspect to me was trying to figure out who serves the ball and when. What I learned was – it depends upon where the ball lands…if its on your side of the table you pick it up and serve! This to me at the time seemed extremely primitive. Only when I traveled to the Philippines in October 2012 and saw with my own eyes, real liha professionals in action did I finally understand why.
So, off I went (at my own expense) and while there I did many things. Having a full agenda of presentations, conferences, meetings, and diplomacy opportunities – I started off first being a tourist (for about 48 hours only!) to get a feel for the country, the people, the history and the culture that exists their. My first stop was Corregidor Island – a rich patch of land in the middle of Manila Bay that saw much action in World War 2 when General MacArthur defended the Philippines from the attacking Japanese forces. On this island I learned not only how MacArthur defended the country early-on in the Pacific campaign but even after he was called away by General Dwight D. Eisenhower and subsequently gave his famous farewell address to the Filipino people stating “I Shall Return” he made his promise good and returned 18-months later only to retake the island and liberate the Philippines from the Japanese. This is but one milestone in Philippine history but an important one whereas the connection between the Philippines and America is rooted on our historic bonds of friendship and allegiance. Amazingly, this was not the first time America established such a bond. In 1898, the American Marine Corps and Navy liberated the Philippines from the Spanish as part of the Spanish-American War. This time period is referred to as the American colonization period in Philippine history (see the separate article in this edition of the magazine for more information on how Liha was introduced by the Americans into the Philippines). The visit to Corregidor Island set the tone for me – it ‘rebooted’ me mentally to understand the cultural and historic ties between our two countries. It was indeed a well planned move for Mr. Cua to get me there within 24-hours of hitting Manila soil!
So after that indoctrination, I was eager to visit the haunts of the ‘liha’ underground. The ‘underground’ is a term loosely applied to going to the backwoods areas of the slums, ghettos, and destitute corners of the country to witness sandpaper table tennis ‘money matches’. While I did not observe any betting going on, I did see the professional sandpaper players (i.e., lihadors) in their element and what I witnessed was indeed startling. Seeing these athletes play I was gobsmacked at the extraordinarily high level of skill displayed using a cheap sandpaper racket – and moreso I began to understand and become convinced as to the logic, reason, beauty, and wonder of the ‘lihadors’ who play this classic derivative of conventional table tennis at an extremely high level of elite skill. Amazingly, the term ‘elite level’ doesn’t go along with the physical observations I witnessed. These lihador’s play barefooted, or in sandals, and often without shirts on an antique table with little or poor lighting – but I will tell you, any of them could defeat a 2600 or higher rated player without any problem (if that opponent used a sandpaper racket and played with a 38mm ball using Liha rules). The reason for this is simple – liha forces you to develop a defensive game that is equal to your offensive game – it’s as simple as that. They can hit and smash the ball with equal ease, skill, and accuracy as compared to chopping consistently back-off the table 12 feet. They do this repetitively and accurately, and with a high level of tactical cunning and technical skill and placement. I witnessed chop after chop come back two inches or less over the net time after time returning smash after smash. Seeing this is almost poetic in nature, graceful, and it constitutes the sole lingering remnant of the type of table tennis played throughout the world during the golden age of table tennis before inverted sponge rubber was introduced. Seeing it done with a sandpaper racket also defies logic in many ways.
Consider for a moment the time and dedication it takes any American table tennis player to reach a high level of proficiency using a sponge rubber racket - years yes? Well, these lihadors have been taught how to chop and smash, and how to place the ball where they want it on the table generation after generation – actually, since 1898. Its no small wonder that they have taken the culture that we introduced in 1898, preserved it, then over 114 years, they have perfected it. In my life I have seen some of the best table tennis players in the USA and some of the best ITTF Pro Tour players in the world - but I would match the skill of those players against the skill of these lihadors any day without hesitation (using a sandpaper racket) – and yet, they do so by using a $1.98 sandpaper racket that has no friction, and plays ‘slick as axel grease’. But how can this be? Am I exaggerating? Hallucinating? All I can tell you is…you have to see this with your own eyes to believe it. Personally, I believe that if you take a lihador and require them to play a sandpaper match using conventional ITTF rules the odds become greater for the international opponent but even still – the master level lihador will still probably come out on top. This is a theory that I hope to prove over the next couple of years by designing and organizing an international friendship challenge tournament in the Philippines using 38mm balls and liha rules. This will be a private venture not a USATT initiative. A target of $50,000 -100,000 USD prize money purse is planned to be raised by private investors and corporations between now and 2014. it is hoped that China will be ‘invited’ as well as other countries. We would especially like to see some of the top Chinese men on their National team try their hand at this classic form of early table tennis. Good news is –the wheels of progress for this project are in motion – interested parties can contact me for more information.
However the story on my trip is not over! In addition to visiting the liha ‘underground’ I was asked to be the keynote speaker at a major international sports science conference at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City. Professor Oscar Santelices with the Department of Human Kinetics along with the Dean of the College, Professor Ronualdo Dizer invited me and were instrumental in making arrangements, providing much hospitality, and in helping me with logistics related to the presentation at the conference. The keynote presentation topic was “The resurgence of Philippine Liha Table Tennis: The Pedagogic Experience America Forgot”. Following this was the 5-day “Chancellor’s Cup” tournament – one of the largest table tennis tournaments in the Philippines with almost 700 participants. A majority of the tournament was collegiate and scholastic teams however, there were many liha events, hardbat events, and liha team events as well. Therefore, many of the lihador’s who generally are reclusive of conventional table tennis tournaments literally “came out of the woodwork” for this very special once a year event. Watching the liha teams compete who traveled from the remote islands and reaches of the Philippines was indeed a rare treat. Describing what I saw at these events as remarkable as it was, would take several more pages of description, so for brevity I will leave that for another day.
In between the tournament and conference the main thing I wanted to accomplish from my travels was to promote and bring attention to liha – within the Philippines. As in the USA – conventional table tennis players and the table tennis leadership in the Philippines are less focused upon liha – and generally only focused upon Olympic table tennis. As with America, the Philippine table tennis association (TATAP) has not brought home any Olympic medals. In fact, the Philippines did not bring in any medals in any sport this past Olympics nor have they done so in three Olympic cycles. This is a tumultuous politically charged topic in the Philippines and there exists ample ‘finger pointing’ and much rhetoric between the sports leaderships and the Philippine congress - which funds many of the sport programs. Unlike the USA which receives no government funding for the Olympics, the Philippines (like most countries) do receive some funding. While it is not much, the little that is received there from the government is revered as ‘critical path’ to the development of aspiring athletes.
So how to spread the word about liha? Well…I was fortunate to arrange for several key meetings with some of the sports leaders. One such meeting was with the Philippine Sport Commission (PSC). I met with Chairman Garcia and had a wonderful and very meaningful dialog with him on the best kept secret in the Philippines – liha table tennis. We entertained the thought about what it would be like if the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) recognized liha table tennis as a classic discipline of contemporary table tennis under the jurisdiction of ITTF. Especially considering the high elite level of skills that the Philippine athletes display in the sport. Could that not almost guarantee Olympic success for the Philippines? An interesting thought indeed…!
Also, I was able to meet with members of the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) and had a similar discussion. Also, with key community leaders – such as the Chairman of the Chinese downtown YMCA in ‘Chinatown’ Manila, as well as the current President of TATAP – same message. In all cases I believe I was successful in opening the eyes of all of these distinguished leaders to something that they all have in common and which they all should work towards together – which is to figure out a way to put your best race horse in the front of the pack at the race track. In other words, Liha has a high degree of probably success if it were introduced as a sport in the Olympics (see other article in this edition of the magazine for more on this). While this mission is not mine to make, it presents some clearly unique possibilities for the Philippines, and I believe after the planned 2014 Friendship Challenge tournament, many other ‘larger’ more influential countries will also support that notion.
There were also several television interviews, morning shows, and special features. I had the privilege of working with three TV stations (Channels 2, 5, 7 as I recall). During one of these occasions, I was fortunate to meet and talk with a WBC World Boxing Champion about liha and to get some publicity photos, Same topic – promotion of liha table tennis touting the benefits for potential medals, national pride, and the aerobic benefits for seniors (Note: did I mention the 93-year old lihador – Mr. Iking from the Cavite City area who uses Liha as his primary form of daily aerobic exercise?). Finally, I conducted a special 2-hour sports radio interview on DZSR Sports Radio transmitted all across the country also was an excellent opportunity to share the historical and cultural roots of Liha and tie it all into table tennis today.
In addition to myself, Ambassador Cua introduced me to two visiting table tennis delegates from Iran – Miss Fariba Ghavamzadh Alrazavi (Women’s Coach and International Umpire) and Mr. Ali Jafari (Jeffrey) Nejad Coach and Umpire in Iran. Both of which are doing some amazing things with youth as related to sandpaper table tennis. Miss Fariba showed us some video clips of her instruction in teaching young Iranian who are blind to play table tennis based on purely the sound of the ball hitting the table and contacting the racket. Coach Fariba herself an accomplished chopper and former national women’s team member, has embraced liha table tennis for the health and aerobic benefits realized and uses liha as a tool in teaching the disabled children how to play (note: sponge rubber rackets have a much more subtle and more undiscernable sound associated with the contact between ball and racket, thus she prefers liha rackets for her students).
All of these events and wonderful people, including the personal invitations from many accomplished table tennis clubs such as the Marikina TTC, Marinduque TTC, UP Diliman TTC (and Teams) and many, many more will always be something I remember and cherish in years to come. I had a very productive, busy, and action packed series of meetings and adventures during my stay in the Philippines. The folks there (Administrators, Coach’s, etc..) are absolutely wonderful, kind, caring individuals, and without ego or pretenses. I truly look forward to going back and interacting with these wonderful people and promoting ‘cultural exchange’ friendship, and more ideas related to working together on future projects between the USA and the Philippines. Thanks to Coach Oskie, Coach Karen, and most especially my personal day to day guide ‘Liha’ Ambassador Mr. Peter Cua for helping make all of this happen. Hopefully – “I Shall Return” in the near future.
Underground Liha Hubs – ‘Somewhere’ in the Philippines
Group photo of the lihadors found at just one of the many ‘underground’ liha hubs throughout the Philippines. Pictured are Coach Fariba from Iran and Mike Babuin/USA
Meeting with Philippine Sport Commission (PSC)
L-R Ambassador Cua; Col. Tamayo (Chairman of the Philippine Tribal Games); Mike Babuin; PSC Chairman Ricardo Garcia; Professor Oscar Santelices
Meeting at Downtown Manila YMCA
TATAP President Ting Ledesma; Mike Babuin; and Ambassador Peter Cua